Boys will be boys

Film - Philip Kerr on why an acclaimed portrait of Iranian life is no more radical than a home movie

There are lots of good reasons to go and see the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami's new film, Ten, almost all of them supplied by important film critics who like to cross themselves with the name of Jean-Luc Godard. It has even been suggested by the Independent that because, allegedly, Ten "took the Cannes Film Festival by storm", this movie is "the number one arts event of the autumn". Now, Ten didn't actually win a prize at Cannes, which prompts one to wonder just what kind of storm it did create. Honestly, I cannot imagine it was ever more than a gentle breeze. But even if it did create a storm at Cannes, so what?

My own experience of Cannes suggests that with the exception of the jury, the people who actually see more than a couple of films at Cannes are usually the kind of sad anoraks who don't actually get invited to any of the parties, and are obliged to sleep on the floor of someone else's hotel bedroom. There are many better things to do in Cannes - or, here in London, for that matter - than sit through what looks like some Iranian guy's home movie and be reminded, at length, that kids are pretty much the same the world over, and that women have a tough time of it under the mullahs.

Goodness, it's not as if we didn't know this already; and it is tempting to imagine that there are some film critics who delight in the recherche singularity of a film like this, who take a kind of sadistic pleasure in its very obvious difficulty - in the same way as do those pitiless reviewers who urge one to read the near unreadable novels of John Updike. Perhaps there are even some others who give a frankly rather boring film like this their critical imprimatur because they feel a kind of liberal guilt that they live in a nicer country than Kiarostami does, the kind of country where not only is it comparatively easy to make a film that depicts women as people, but also where a woman can commit adultery and not be stoned to death (hurray for the adulterous Edwina).

Watching a foreign film is always a bit tricky. And when in doubt, I usually find myself deciding that the acid test of whether it is any good or not is: would I think it was a good film if it were in English? Here the answer is a resounding no. The unvarnished truth about this film is that it's way too long and not nearly as radical as any of the critics has suggested. Think of one of those short films you often see after Channel 4 News, which prompts you to turn over and catch the last bit of Coronation Street or the beginning of The Bill; now multiply it by, well, ten, I suppose, and what you might have is this movie. Shot around Tehran in a 4x4 SUV on a couple of dashboard-mounted, locked-off digital video cameras, it looks very much like the sort of film I often make myself when I go on holiday with my wife and family.

What you will see if you visit the ICA, where Ten is now showing, are ten conversations over a period of 48 hours, between the driver of the car (Mania Akbari) and her various passengers: an old religious woman who has given away all of her money; a Tehran hooker; a young woman friend who is in love; and the driver's awkward sod of a little son. It's the two conversations with this eight-year-old serpent's tooth that are best of the lot; and it seems to me that this would have been rather a good short film - perhaps on Channel 4 - if Kiarostami had stuck with one-tenth of his eventual movie.

Junior can't forgive his mother for making up a story about his father being a drug addict in order to get a divorce; his mother tries to explain than under Iranian law, women are obliged to resort to such mendacities to be free of an oppressive husband; but the boy isn't having any of this, and it's clear from the contempt and anger with which he addresses his mother that he's already in training to join the next generation of cloth-eared Islamic misogynists. Broken home or not, I felt that what the boy needed most was a thick ear. To singleton critics, all of this may look remarkable; but the plain fact of the matter is that small boys, as parents know and as J M Barrie once approximately observed, can be heartless little bastards. Since seeing this film, I am tempted to film my own boys at their very worst-behaved, so that one day I can replay them the tapes and show them just how hard it is to bring up children. But I would not dream of inflicting my film on you.

Ten (12) is showing in selected cinemas