starring Mania Akbari, Amin Maher, Kamran Adl, Roya Arabashi
written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami
starring Oksana Akinshina, Artyom Bogucharsky, Lyubov Agapova, Liliya Shinkaryova
written and directed by Lukas Moodysson
by Walter Chaw The plight of women in oppressive and/or emerging cultures, on film, is a slipstream metaphor for the travails of all the citizenry of that place and, from there, the existential struggle of modern man--a heavy burden, to be sure, and one that forever teeters on the precipice of trite to the one side, affected to the other. (With "condescending" the great beast, crouched and ready to pounce.) Women are too often grail repositories of fear and loathing--indicator species, much like children in film, to be examined for hints of what's toxic in the spirit of the time. That two foreign films by male directors find their way to the United States in fast company of one another, dealing with the plight of women (all women, all society, all the world) in ways frank and raw, is arguably not so much coincidence, then, as a synchronicity that, no matter their relative success, represents a sharp spur and a whip to the collective flank.
Abbas Kiarostami, Iran's most-celebrated auteur, is a rigorous chronicler of unvarnished conversation whose automobile obsession evokes Barthes' rolling chrome cathedrals, and who, after ABC Africa, has embraced the digital-video medium as the end and the beginning of truth in cinema. The movement from Kiarostami's gorgeous compositions to grainy--and in Ten, rigid--single-set DV rigs is a tragic aesthetic devolution (think Zhang Yimou taking the Dogme oath), but there appears a method to his madness no matter the modesty of this particular accomplishment. (The search for completion in the front seat confessional has already been done, and better, by Kiarostami and his unparalleled Taste of Cherry and the use of off-screen characters in dialogue in the director's haunted The Wind Will Carry Us.) The director as documenter and the film as document: Ten's digital myopia scales the artifice of film down as through a contracting camera shutter. If it hurts to lose Kiarostami's eye, at least it's to a philosophy that matters.
Ten, however, after an astonishing opening fifteen minutes, is mundane and repetitive--descriptions that had never been applicable to his work until now, in what is arguably his most formalist (most ambitiously formalist) picture. Ten dialogues shot using a small digital camera bolted to the dashboard of an unnamed middle-class Iranian every-woman's (Mania Akbari) car, Ten has as its lone nod to traditional cinema a reel countdown graphic marking each new conversation, which lends the piece a whiff of the inevitable and the apocalyptic. The film opens with an argument between X and her son Amin (Amin Maher), the camera focused on the child for an uninterrupted, excruciatingly discomfiting, fifteen minutes, charting with remarkable sadness the metamorphosis of a toddler into a bitter, violent man. The mother and child will talk three more times after this, each conversation shorter, until the last is a single rifle-shot, barked and bleak.
X speaks to a prostitute and a religious zealot in her endless, circular drive, the one repeating "sex" as a mocking mantra, the other "prayer" as a demented one. Locked into their cycles of denial and comfortable repetition, they draw X into the implication of the mendacity of existence, all of her lectures on "freedom" and "individuality" reduced to what Amin correctly identifies as "just talking." Angry with his mother for his parents' divorce, Amin is an embryo for future dysfunction: personal, societal, the whole package--the jilting of a young woman, another of X's passengers, by her fiancé ultimately just an illustration of the callousness Amin represents in its nascent form. Ten is a little of the beginning and the end of what ails, the hope for better constantly battered by the realities of the day-to-day and, most jarringly, the revelation that those realities are always the same in ouroborosian circuit. What seems at first repetitive to no end, then, might ultimately be a master filmmaker working the medium to reiterate the message. Taking that as a firm possibility, Ten remains a point made to distraction.
In a similar vein, Swedish filmmaker Lukas Moodysson's third film Lilya 4-Ever is relentless, self-consuming, and ruthlessly bleak. As diaries of the apocalypse go, where Ten hints at mesmeric chant, Lilya 4-Ever is barbaric yawp. Moodysson's first film, Fucking Åmål, presented itself as something of a dogme-lite feature in following the rebellion and sexual awakening of two young girls itching with womanhood in their impossibly boring hometown. With Lilya 4-Ever, the filmmaker emerges in full flower as a Nordic Harmony Korine, presenting the despair of the damned with unvarnished bluntness and something that feels suspiciously like outrage. Also set in an impossibly boring hometown (the picture's young protagonists both complain that "nothing ever happens here"), Lilya 4-Ever is set in the slums of a depressed Russian city, struggling under the yoke of adolescent capitalism's growing pains. To amuse themselves, Lilya (an amazing Oksana Akinshina) and Volodya (Artyom Bogucharsky, likewise amazing) huff glue and play endless rounds of hooky, amuck in what poverty has made to look like a war zone.
Abandoned by her grasping, wheedling mother (Lyubov Agapova), Lilya finds herself out of her home, penniless, and eventually, turned to prostitution. Endlessly victimized (raped, beaten, kidnapped, betrayed), the picture discovers in Lilya's own behavior echoes of her mother's abandonment--her descent into the sex trade precipitated directly by news that her mother has turned the sixteen-year-old over to child services. The dreams of betterment represented in the promise of money hangs over every moment like a glimpse of the grail (even the cigarettes Lilya smokes are called "Wall Streets"); when Lilya finally assesses the events that have brought her low (with Volodya by now transformed into a lovely, Wim Wenders-ian metaphor), it's Moodysson's dark sense of humour to make her heaven the hell of merely poverty and insurmountable ennui.
Where Kiarostami's film seems content to allow its protagonist a purgatory of driving in circles (hence: satire), Moodysson gifts his protagonist with the entire divine comedy cycle of loss-descent-languor-paradise, making Lilya's literal self-destruction an act of defiance and, even, triumph (hence: irony). To call Lilya 4-Ever optimistic, though, is as glib as saying that it as well as Ten are about the travails of women. The pictures are possessed of a more genuine gender equality--they're documents of human suffering and sickness of the spirit, Nietzsche's "mankind" stretched across the abyss, snapping under the tension back from man's ability to hope to the feral mendacity of bestial bewilderment and self-preservation. While both are models of simplicity, stripped of artifice and played on a loop, Lilya 4-Ever has the sensation of a younger director (Moodysson is 34, Kiarostami, 62) drunk on his own bile, while Ten is centered by tranquil reflection: acquiescence to tides and undertows stronger than something so ephemeral as ambition. If both films are ultimately less than perfect, both, too, are examples of the possibility for cinema to drop pebbles in existential wells--roiling up the bottom, or just catching the reverb. Originally published: June 27, 2003.