SOMETIMES the finest art emerges from the most claustrophobic places. Abbas Kiarostami's "10," a sort of chamber piece on the road, couldn't illustrate this better. A movie set entirely inside a moving car, it tells us parenthetically of the strictures imposed on filmmakers by the Iranian government. And it shows us, in an extraordinarily simple way, the hopes and frustrations of one woman's life.
The woman (Mania Akbari) is unnamed, but in her conversations with her various passengers -- shown in 10 chapters -- details of her life emerge. She's a divorcee. She has a 10-year-old son, Amin (Amin Maher). She has remarried. She's a working professional. She dresses well, upscale. And here's the crucial detail: She has a mind and will of her own. Despite the veil around her head, she's living a quiet, inner revolution of self determination. You can see this by her responses to the people who enter her car, including her son, who veers somewhere between adorable and virulently patriarchal; a best friend who has shorn her hair and who is heartbroken because of a man; an old woman who is deeply religious; and a prostitute who mistakes the woman for a male customer.
In these 10 car-bound conversations, we don't just learn more about the protagonist, we learn about the frustrations of being a woman in Iran. This is Kiarostami's most favored motif, and he does it brilliantly and directly. The driver engages the hooker. Why does she do what she does? The two women share an animated discussion about the fleeting (in the hooker's mind) differences between the roles of prostitutes and wives. We never see the hooker's face, and when she leaves the car, we watch as she gets into another vehicle. Back to work. No changes in worldview.
The conversations with the driver's son, three of the 10 chapters, are the moral centerpieces of the movie. We are watching the evolution of a little male mind, which is already berating women for their apparent transgressions. Never mind that Amin's father, the driver's ex, has a thing for pornography as well as other issues. The divorce, in the boy's mind, remains his mother's fault. It's a spellbinding performance by Maher, as this preteen verbally batters his mother with accusations, then refuses to listen to what he considers her shrill repetition. We are looking at the future. And in the circular structure of this movie (the final confrontation with her son is also the movie's last scene), we are made to realize there is no sense that things are on the fast track to a better society.
Viewers could be forgiven for not wanting to deal with a movie in which the camera never shifts between both people in the car. (The point of view is either the driver's or the passenger's.) But this is a minimalist work that isn't about what you can see. It's about what you can't.
10 (Unrated, 94 minutes) -- Contains nothing objectionable. In Farsi with subtitles. At the American Film Institute Silver Theatre, Silver Spring.