For anyone who views modernist cinema from a geographic perspective, the developments of the last 15 years must look curious indeed. For decades, the essential template for the “art film” was fundamentally European. From the rise of the Italian Neorealists in the late ’40s, through the catalytic innovations of the French New Wave and related movements in the ’60s and ’70s, down to the explosive apogee of the New German Cinema in the early ’80s, cinema’s cutting edge seemed closely related to the avant-gardist energies of one European culture or another.

How different the same landscape looks today. European cinema, apart from scattered (and not always impressive) provocateurs such as Lars Von Trier and Pedro Almodvar, seems to have settled into an early senescence. Yet the kind of intelligence and daring once associated with names like Godard and Antonioni is still being practiced–only its geographic venues are different. Now it more often emerges from locales as diverse as mainland China, Taiwan or, perhaps most remarkably of all, the Islamic Middle East.

Given the Western mistake of regarding the cultures of the Islamic world as inherently backward and undeveloped, there’s no small surprise in the fact that few European art films of late are as complex and genuinely sophisticated as Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten, from Iran, and Elia Suleiman’s Divine Intervention, from Palestine. (Coincidentally, the two films open in the Triangle this week.)

These are both extraordinary films. Yet, as firmly rooted in its native culture as each is, it wouldn’t be accurate to see them as entirely “non-European,” since both filmmakers have, in effect, picked up the modernist baton that their European counterparts have largely dropped. And, indeed, the two films reach us via the same art-film pipeline that’s been the traditional conduit for serious European cinema: Both premiered at last spring’s Cannes Film Festival, then had their American debuts at the fall’s New York Film Festival (which Kiarostami was unable to attend due to the draconian restrictions now enforced by the U.S. State Department on great artists who happen to hail from Islamic countries).

I don’t wish to stress the films’ commonalities too much, though, because apart from their similar Euro-modernist tendencies, they are as different as, well, Iran and Palestine.

Kiarostami’s Ten opens with one of the most astonishing scenes I’ve seen in any recent movie, and yet it is utter simplicity. The camera is mounted on the dashboard of a car in Tehran and its gaze remains fixed on the passenger seat throughout. That seat is occupied by 10-year-old Amin (Amin Maher), who is wearing the kinds of logo-branded T-shirt and knapsack that kids in most parts of the urban world now sport. Amin has just been picked up by his mom, Mania (Mania Akbari), and as soon as he’s in the car, they fall into an argument that seems like a longstanding feud.

Mom has divorced Amin’s dad and remarried, and the boy is none too happy with any of this. As soon as she makes the most seemingly innocuous of remarks, he launches into her for repeating the same stupidities over and over. She’s driving him crazy, he loudly proclaims, and it feels like he may be doing the same for her. This is, in any case, a fraught but sadly familiar emotional dilemma. What’s so striking about the scene, though, is the sheer intensity of the little boy’s performance.

He is all over the place, physically and emotionally–shouting out the window happily at a friend, bouncing up and down in his seat, screaming at his mom, covering his face with his knapsack in semi-feigned agony, and constantly thinking. The thoughts stream across his face like patches of sunshine and thundershowers, but in fast motion. I’ve never seen a performance by a child actor that’s so amazing in its incandescence and seeming transparency. (Incidentally, this roughly 10-minute scene contains about a dozen edits, yet these are only for purposes of concision; the boy’s performance is a single, brilliantly sustained piece.)

How does Kiarostami do it? I doubt that anyone walking out of Ten will fail to wonder that, because what little Amin does here really seems to surpass our normal definitions of screen acting. Was the scene partly improvised? Did the boy memorize all that dialogue? How does a director direct a scene like this? I talked with Kiarostami about some of this in Tehran last year, shortly before he finished editing the film and before I saw it. He said that, as in the past, he tried to get the actors in the right mood, then stepped away while the camera rolled. Which is interesting, but hardly explains the magical effects of his method.

One factor worth noting, though, is the camera itself. With his documentary ABC Africa (which had its premiere at the 2001 DoubleTake festival in Durham), Kiarostami discovered the advantages of shooting with small, lightweight digital video cameras. Used in Ten for dramatic purposes, the same technique reveals a new range of artistic uses.

One thing that struck me almost subliminally about Amin’s performance the first time I saw it is that the boy’s gaze sweeps across the entire visual field, including the space “occupied” by the camera. Usually, especially in scenes where the camera is so close, an actor must make an effort not to look at the camera, and we’ve all grown unconsciously accustomed to the way an actor’s eyes “skip” over the place where the camera is. Here, it’s like there is no camera. Amin’s eyes seem to peer into us, as only a child’s eyes can.

Ten gets its title from the fact that it is comprised of 10 conversations that Mania–a notably chic and gorgeous Tehrani soccer mom–has in her car over the course of several days. Besides Amin, who reappears in three scenes, the passengers are all women. These include a devout elderly widow who’s on her way to the Ali Akbar Mausoleum to pray; a cynical, harsh-voiced prostitute; Mania’s sister, who seems both more practical and more naive than she is; and a thin friend who’s having romantic difficulties and who, in one of the film’s most memorable sequences, removes her scarf to reveal that she has shaved her head in sorrow.

Kiarostami has not previously made a film centered on women, he has said, largely because women in Iran don’t wear head coverings when they’re at home, yet Iranian law prohibits filmmakers from showing women uncovered. Happily, the director’s longstanding penchant for shooting in cars solves that dilemma, a car being both public and private space–that is, private emotionally, yet public visually.

With its 10-conversation structure, fixed camera angles and long takes, Ten is spare, minimalist and reality-focused in a way that recalls the work of Jean-Luc Godard. Uninterested in the formulas and entertainment strategies of fictional movies, it’s almost like a documentary about contemporary Tehran as seen through the eyes of women, all of whom have some version of “man trouble” (which in one case manifests as “little boy trouble”).

Given our perilous ignorance of the Islamic world, this documentary aspect is itself a strong reason to see the film; you’ll learn more about Iran in 90 minutes than in a year’s worth of news reports. The other reason is the passionately intelligent humanism that makes Kiarostami’s work–and other Iranian films–so much more genuinely artistic than most of what passes for cinematic art in our part of the world.

Over two years ago, Israeli leader Ariel Sharon sparked the second Palestinian intifada with a personal incursion into the Muslim holy site that Jews call the Temple Mount, an act which precisely assured that relations between Jewish Israelis and Palestinians would instantly degenerate into a state of warfare. Last week–after I began writing this review, in fact–Sharon launched the second phase of that war, the phase conducted in outright defiance of the U.S. president, whose country largely underwrites Israel’s brutal subjugation of another people.

Though Israeli helicopters aimed their missiles at Palestinian militants on June 10–less than a week after Sharon paid perfunctory lip service to an American “road map” pointing toward peace and the creation of a Palestinian state–the attack’s real target was not Hamas but George Bush. Sharon’s unmistakable message: “You think the U.S. president has more say over American Middle East policy than the Israeli Prime Minister? Think again, squirt. As long as the Jewish lobby and their fundamentalist Christian allies in Washington remain as powerful as they are, I call the shots. I’ll wage war as long as I want to, and you’ll keep paying the bills, supplying the weapons and, oh yeah, carrying my coat.”

The only chance of reversing this situation, a Jewish friend notes, is one that won’t make some of us happy: the re-election of George Bush in 2004. Only after his second term begins, my friend reasons, will Bush be able to risk trying to prove that his cojones are a match for Sharon’s.

Meanwhile, the horrific Israeli occupation (Sharon’s own word) will continue to depend on the captive U.S. media and its central big lie about the Israeli-Palestinian struggle: the myth of moral equivalency, the notion that the two sides are equally right and equally wrong. Somehow this daft idea suffuses our airwaves even though it contradicts the most basic playground wisdom: The rich bully on top is in the wrong, the stateless little kid he’s pummeling into the dirt is right.

The superiority of art to “journalism” in this regard–which stems from art’s fundamental moral dimension, its dedication to seeing clearly rather than to evasion or denial–is particularly self-evident in the case of cinema. Quite simply: The world has not seen, nor does it stand to see, any great Israeli movie on the current situation, for the simple reason that much of Israeli society right now cannot stand too much clarity or candor on the subject. At the same time, the Palestinians are able to turn out a film as brave, incisive and downright amazing as Divine Intervention.

With that introduction, you are probably expecting an earnest, accusatory, somberly realistic polemic. Suleiman’s film, much to the contrary, is a work of exuberant imagination and mind-blowing wit. You watch it and think: If Lenny Bruce or Mort Sahl were contemporary Palestinian filmmakers, this is the movie they would be making.

Here’s another reference point: Buster Keaton. If memory serves, the word “deadpan” was coined to describe the great silent comic stony demeanor. It’s just as fitting when applied to the hangdog presence of writer-director Elia Suleiman, who stars in his own film as a problem-plagued Palestinian filmmaker called E.S. Yet this isn’t a nouveau Keaton served straight up, so to speak; it’s more like Keaton as filtered though Samuel Beckett, Jean-Luc Godard and Edward Said.

What can I tell you about Divine Intervention? Well, it’s a surreally comic extravaganza that includes knife-wielding kids chasing Santa Claus (Suleiman hails from Nazareth), an Israeli tank erupting in a fireball that would make Bruce Willis’ eyes pop, Yassir Arafat becoming a balloon (full of hot air, no doubt) that floats over the Dome of the Rock, and the Israeli army being besieged by an airborne female Palestinian Ninja.

But rather than telling you more about this film or Kiarostami’s, I would rather urge you: If you have time for only two art films this year, make them these eye-opening movies from the Islamic Middle East. EndBlock