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Oeuvre: Kiarostami: Shirin

Oeuvre: Kiarostami: Shirin

Kiarostami has always been known to intertwine practice with theory, and Shirin plays like an intro to film theory syllabus.

The cinema of Abbas Kiarostami is decidedly experimental, but with the exception of non-narrative pieces as Five (2003), most of the Iranian master’s films experiment within the general conventions of visual storytelling, sometimes in sneaky ways. Take for example 2010’s Certified Copy, his first foray into transnational prestige cinema: rookies may have felt ambushed by Juliette Binoche and William Shimell’s third act slide into surrealism, but this twist fell perfectly within the accepted boundaries of arthouse drama.

The French actress also ‘starred’ – so to speak – just two years earlier in a film that may not have been the director’s most oblique, but was probably his most schematic. Shirin tells a story – indeed, a well-known love story from Persian folklore – but keeps it entirely off-screen. A lush score plays as dialogue is spoken, but all we see are a series of faces in a darkened theater, presumably transfixed by the film to which the music and words belong. The gauntlet Kiarostami lays down is to follow the story’s emotionally charged flow by reading the reactions of its recipients against what we hear.

Binoche’s face is but one among over a hundred. Most are Iranian actresses, many very famous at home; Western cinephiles at the very least will likely perk up at the sight of Niki Karimi, Leila Hatami, and Taraneh Alidoosti, seen just last year in Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman. Absent any dialogue, characters, or anything beyond simple reactions to the ‘film’ beyond the frame, their star power centers our attention. In a typical Kiarostami touch, Shirin is as much about their experience of the story as it is about the story itself.

Off-screen, the doomed love between Princess Shirin of Armenia and Prince Koshrow of Persia is what calls the performers’ attention. The story suffers from mythic tendencies toward hyperbolic passions and clockwork demises. After Shirin refuses Koshrow’s first offer of marriage, she falls in love with Farhad, a sculptor, who is quickly subjected to the prince’s jealous petulance and forced through Sisyphean trials before finally jumping to his death. Koshrow, in turn, is killed by his spiteful son. The couple’s sole prolonged union is on his deathbed.

More interesting than the story’s details is how it’s told. Declamatory dialogue emphasizes sense perception, particularly touch: “My hands are numb, but my man’s body is still warm,” bemoans Shirin over Koshrow’s corpse. This is, of course, in keeping with the presentational style of premodern theater. While the action is entirely off-screen, a vivid tactile sense compensates for this.

The tale is also addressed explicitly to women. When Shirin implores the wailing mourners, “Listen to me, my sisters,” she also seems to be talking to Binoche and her colleagues. They do listen, but guardedly. Indeed, for much of Shirin, the maudlin pitch of the ‘film’ is met with boredom, wry smiles and the adjustment of hijabs. The source material might be ancient, but the audience is every bit as jaded as any modern media consumer, most strikingly unmoved by the hilariously graphic-sounding battle scenes. Only near the end do tears emerge, and yet the timing feels ever-so-slightly off: their crying doesn’t correspond with any particularly tragic turns.

Kiarostami has always been known to intertwine practice with theory, and Shirin plays like an intro to film theory syllabus.
The interest in close-ups recalls Béla Balázs’ discussion of the “microphysiognomy” of the face. The dialectic of sound and image echoes René Clair’s advocacy for an alternative, rather than simultaneous, relationship between the two. Then there’s the male gaze. Does Shirin confront this system or reaffirm it? There’s even a bit of Lev Kuleshov in there, insofar as Kiarostami apparently filmed the actresses one-by-one in his living room, where they simply stared at unmoving images for minutes at a time: if ever there was validation for the notion that film confers temporal and spatial coherence on disparate fragments, this would be it.

Shirin is, admittedly, a bit of a one-trick pony, and a minor work in Kiarostami’s oeuvre. But that one trick is pretty damn compelling, at least while it lasts.

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