Dir: Abbas Kiarostami. Iran/France 2002. 94 mins. In competition

A defiantly no-frills exercise even by his ascetic standards, 10 is Abbas Kiarostami's triumphant vindication of digital video's potential to produce a kind of cinema that cannot be achieved by other means. This is screen minimalism at its most uncompromising: 10 sequences of varying length, shot with a locked-off DV camera, of people talking in a car, seemingly improvising around what may be a very loose script. Gruelling as this might sound, the results are a riveting drama that pays testament both to the magnetism of the performers and to the audacity of Kiarostami's conception - although the director has managed to make his own intervention all but invisible. One of the most biting comments yet on women's condition in Iranian society, the film has little of the lyricism, tart comedy or visual appeal of Kiarostami's last fiction feature The Wind Will Carry Us, but its dramatic force and hard-nosed formal innovation will give it some commercial clout on the specialised arthouse circuit where The Wind' was such a hit.

In episodes numbered down from 10 to 1, Kiarostami takes us inside the car of a young unnamed woman (Mania Akbari) driving through Tehran. In the first episode, she drives her young son Amin (Amin Maher) to the swimming pool. In what appears to be a single uninterrupted 15-minute take - although in fact there are barely perceptible jump cuts - she and Amin talk testily about her divorce, about which the boy is resentful. The mother, unseen through this sequence, is now living with a new man, Mortaza; we hear her complain about her marriage and how her ex-husband destroyed her. Now, she tells Amin, she belongs only to herself; he accuses her of selfishness, and the tension between them escalates into screaming. The boy is particularly angry that in order to divorce, his mother accused her husband of being a drug addict; Iran's tough divorce laws, she replies, call for desperate measures. As the sequence ends, we at last see the mother - young, well-groomed, apparently wealthy - at the wheel.

Section nine alternates shots between the driving and passenger seats. The woman now has her sister in the car and the two women discuss the problems of parenthood. In the very brief section eight, the mother gives a religious old woman a lift, but resists her encouragement to go and pray.

The film takes a darker turn, literally and thematically, in section seven, set at night, in which the mother has given a lift to a young prostitute, who has got into her car mistaking her for a male punter. The two women talk frankly about life on the game, and the hooker jokes bitterly about her married customers, men whom she hears phoning their wives to declare their conjugal love. The section ends with the film's only shot outside the car, signalling its central importance as a metaphor of women's place in what the hooker calls a society of trade: she is seen in the street soliciting passing cars in the night.

As sections follow, leaving it ambivalent how much time is passing between them, a certain narrative momentum begins to escalate. At one point, we learn Amin is now living with his father, and is apparently much happier - but his mother's, and our, doubts are raised when he chats about the TV shows his father watches privately at night, before innocently chanting, "Sex, sex'". The penultimate episode's devastating culmination has the mother's friend, abandoned by her boyfriend, lift back her scarf to reveal she has shaved her head. We assume this unexplained act is a gesture of protest, and in the context of an Iranian film, it registers as a quite startling defiance of a taboo on representations of women, no less scandalous in its way than the film's unprecedentedly frank sex talk. The brief final sequence reprises an earlier episode, as if to say (echoing an earlier Kiarostami title) "and life goes on."

10 comes across almost as a documentary, a depiction of raw reality that could, for all we know, be improvised. Certainly, Kiarostami refers in his notes to "the disappearance of direction", and it is a film in which staging, artifice and even editing seem to recede if not vanish entirely. He also teasingly classifies it as neither documentary nor fiction but "midway between the two, perhaps". Certainly, the loose, energetic of the performances suggest that the characters are either improvising brilliantly or just being themselves - and the young Amin Maher's unruly energy throughout is another of those marvels of vibrant, abrasive child performance that Iran produces regularly. As well as making a powerful statement about the social and economic traps facing Iranian women (and of which the film's female characters are astutely critical), 10 stands as a key exhibit in the development of the new digital cinema and a dazzling example of the "less-is-more" aesthetic.

Prod co: MK2, Abbas Kiarostami
Int'l sales:
Kiarostami, Marin Karmitz
Scr, ed, cinematography:
Abbas Kiarostami
Main cast:
Mania Akbari, Roya Arabshahi, Katayoun Taleidzadeh, Mandana Sharbaf, Amin Maher