Kiarostami shoots the close-ups of more than a hundred actresses as they watch a theatrical presentation unfold in this conceptually bold but ultimately uninvolving treatise on the nature of spectatorship.
Dir. Abbas Kiarostami
2008 | Iran | Experimental | 95 mins | 1.85:1 | Persian
PG (passed clean)
Plot: 112 Iranian actresses are the audience at a performance of a famous 12th century Persian poem. The performance remains off camera; the real story is told by the faces and reactions of the women.
Awards: Official Selection (Venice)
International Sales: MK2
Subject Matter: Moderate/Abstract – Spectatorship, Women
Narrative Style: Straightforward/Experimental
Audience Type: Niche Arthouse
Viewed: Oldham Theatre – Asian Film Archive (Kiarostami Retrospective)
A feature-length experiment that might have worked better as a short or medium-length film, Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin is well worth a watch for die-hard fans of the Iranian auteur, though it might not promise the reward of multiple viewings unlike other films of his.
Made up of close-ups of more than a hundred Iranian actresses (plus a cameo by Juliette Binoche, who was shooting for Kiarostami’s next film, 2010’s Certified Copy) as they watch intently what appears to be a filmed version of a stage play unfold.
We never get the reverse shot of what they are viewing (though we are able to listen to the dialogue, sound effects and music score), which is of course in the tradition of Kiarostami’s mode of cinematic address, as he attempts a treatise on the nature of spectatorship.
“It took me a lifetime to understand that love was not an old rag with which to polish men’s boots.”
As eyes widen or tear up to the performances, Kiarostami uses the flickering light of the screen to illuminate each face and the other surrounding faces.
While a spectator is no different to a prisoner in a darkened cell, mute and unable to move, Kiarostami imprisons us—the meta-audience—further by substituting what would have been a visual stimulus with what I might call a visual sedative.
After a while, it does get drowsy, a sea of faces seemingly no different from one another—which could be a point Kiarostami might have wanted to make about how Iranian actresses deserve more individual credit.
What they are watching is a take on the tragic romance of Khosrow and Shirin, written by a Persian poet in the 12th century. It is not exactly a compellingly-told story to boot in the first place, which is partly the reason Shirin feels less involving than expected, a case of the sum is lesser than its parts.