Deeper than words

In the movie Ten, Abbas Kiarostami attempts to draw the audience to the notion that love relationships are temporary. He does so by depicting the conversations of an attractive Iranian woman, Farideh, with her son and a few other people to whom she gives rides in her car around the streets of Tehran.

At the beginning of the film, Farideh is disturbed, seeming to speak to herself. She tries to explain to her son why she needed to divorce her husband/his father and to convince him that her second marriage is a much wiser choice: “he is a friend to me, your father wasn't.”

The perceptive little boy reads in her mother's loud tone of voice and annoying form of conversation that she is not sure of her either decisions. He plays on her insecurities and guilt feelings, telling her she is selfish and thinks only of herself. He believes that his mother was not accommodating to his Dad. She feels more distressed.

In search of learning about relationships and perhaps soothing her disturbed emotions, Farideh picks up a self-prostituting woman and initiates a conversation with her, as if this passenger can illuminate some mysteries of relationships. Farideh wants to know about her, her previous relationships, her experiences with her clients, the way they treat her, the way they say they treat their wives/female friends, etc.

Farideh is not about to admit to the “prostitute” her curiosity or sense of distress. She adopts the approach of a concerned woman who wishes to assist the prostitute in understanding herself. The “prostitute,” whose face is not revealed in the film, but whose charming voice, provocative personality, and beautiful laughter make her very intriguing to the audience, responds to Farideh that she does not need to hear any moralizing. She is happy with what she does and needs no advice from her.

Yet the “prostitute” also turns the table, questioning Farideh if she realizes that by receiving gifts from her husband, she too is prostituting herself. “Isn't the gift after all an exchange for sex?” Although an interesting encounter, this interaction remains superficial and shallow, as it does not allow for a real exchange about “prostitution,” nor does it illuminate love relationships. Both women remain aloof with one another in a self-defensive attempt.

Farideh comes out of this interaction puzzled, as she should be. After all, the interaction was a guarded one. Neither has revealed to the other their true motivations and experiences. But, Farideh realizes that the “prostitute” might have a good point that relationships are inherently temporary: they last for one night, one month, or a period of one's life, but end eventually. Hanging on to and/or becoming dependent on any man is unwise. Women too should seek out a series of relationships, Farideh seems to conclude.

In another ride, Farideh discovers that the relationship of a close friend, which had lasted seven years, has finally come to an end. This friend strikingly and boldly takes her scarf off in a moment of emotional disclosure, revealing to Farideh that her changed appearance matches her new outlook on life. She is free at the end, free from the confusion of a relationship that was hardly going anywhere.

The friend did not know why her fianc√© seemed scared of a marriage commitment. Was he confused? No, she finally had learned that he was thinking of someone else, although admitting this to himself or to her was not easy. When he had faced the truth that his deepest thoughts were with another woman, each felt liberated to go their separate ways. Farideh echoed the wisdom of the “prostitute” that relationships are temporary in any case.

In Ten, Kiarostami's conceptualization of love relationships as temporary is mysterious and indirect. Communication between the film and the audience relies on hints rather than on substance. One has to figure out the overall theme of the film, its particulars, and its meanings, as if the film-maker is hesitant to make a point.

This film frustrates the audience demanding of them a lot of “guess work.” Moreover, many of movie's interactions and scenes do not fit anywhere. The function of such scenes, like that of a “waiting game,” is to make the audience anxious about some real happening, so to cause them attribute more importance to events than is warranted.

Ten draws in the audience with emotionally charged bits and pieces, but not by well-developed interactions that enable them to understand the reality or complexity of situations. One's emotions are engaged by what appears promising, but the film lacks real substance. This level of non-communication can hardly be blamed on censorship: it must reflect the film-maker's culture of avoidance and self protection.

Revealing as if peeking out from behind the corner of a curtain might attract Western audiences who must be hungry to use their imaginations when all sorts of analyses and perspectives are always presented to them. But, to an Iranian audience, this mode is like torture, reminding them that an individual is alone not only in his/her emotional experiences but also in making sense of them.

Not even movies seem to communicate freely. They exhaust and manipulate rather than exciting the audience by enhancing their knowledge and experiences. Intrigued at first, the viewer is bound to feel betrayed when ultimately realizing that not much in the film was worth their attention, and that the bits and pieces far from illuminate any real social and personal situations.

However, if the script has very little content for its viewers, the female actors offer surprising contributions. Farideh, her friend, and the “prostitute” play their parts in accordance with the script. The “prostitute” claims sex is all that she finds enjoyable, the friend acknowledges celebrating the beginning of a new life, and Farideh echoes the conclusion that relationships are temporary. Yet the audience notices something in their acting that complicates the script. One is hard pressed to believe that the simplistic script reflects these women's true selves.

After all, individuals may transform their emotions only after they make sense of them. Ten hardly engages its audience and/or actors in such transformations. Therefore, it is only natural that the actors reflect their culturally-agreed upon definitions of relationships, despite the script. This conflict between what was intentional and spoken in Ten and what the actors unintentionally develop on a level far deeper than words, is perhaps the real reason that this film makes an impact.

Ten starts by making a rather simplistic point about relationships, but it turns into a complex drama for the audience and the actors, as they cannot figure out why they should think relationships are temporary. Nothing in the film prepares or convinces them of this point. Viewers come out of the theatre with the same assumptions they had before seeing it, only that now they feel a bit more disturbed because they cannot figure out the film either!


Poopak Taati, Ph.D., is a sociologist in Washington DC.

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