10 2002 | Movie Watchlist

Reviewed by Ken Fox

Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's camera never leaves the dashboard of the car, and yet an entire hidden world — that of upper-middle class Iranian women — opens before our eyes. It's a remarkable achievement, considering that the camera is pointed inward the entire time, trained on either the driver or her passenger as the car moves through the busy streets of Tehran. Deceptively simple, the film is ingeniously structured around a series of ten encounters between the car's owner, an attractive, unnamed divorcee (Mania Akbari), and six passengers. The first is her son, Amin (Amin Maher), an angry adolescent who resents the fact that his mother not only divorced his father, but told the court he was a drug addict. (Anyone who's seen the excellent 1998 documentary DIVORCE, IRANIAN STYLE will understand the lengths to which Iranian wives must go to obtain divorces from their husbands.) Furthermore, he hates his step-father, and when his mother tries to explain that she needed her independence, he calls her selfish. The next passenger is the driver's sister, a schoolteacher who's concerned about Amin's moodiness, and suggests letting him stay with his father. That night, the driver picks up a prostitute and asks her why she sells sex for money. "Why not?" the prostitute replies. She's in control of her life, and besides, there isn't much difference between a john paying for sex and a husband buying his wife a necklace. "You're the wholesalers. We're the retailers." In one of the film's most revealing encounters, the driver offers a lift to a friend who's just been dumped by her long-time boyfriend. The driver shares a piece of wisdom she's had to learn the hard way: Instead of passively clinging to their families, women must love themselves and take control of their lives, no matter what the cost. "You can't live without losing," she flatly states, and a reminder of that cost comes during the final scene, when the driver offers to take Amir home. "I want to go to grandmother's house," he sullenly tells her. Culled from nearly 24 hours of footage, this 94-minute film once again straddles that tricky territory between fiction and documentary that Kiarostami has previously found so fertile. And while it's clear that some of it has been scripted, it's filled with the honesty of lived experience. (Kiarostami decided the subject of each scene after conducting long conversations with the actors.) Inexpensively shot on digital video, it's an invaluable work of art.