Phil on Film Index

Monday, May 25, 2009

Review - Shirin

Abbas Kiarostami's
Shirin is inspired by an ancient Iranian love story, but we don't get to see any recreations of this tale in his latest experimental feature. Instead, the great director trains his camera on a cinema audience who are watching the drama unfold on screen, and through a series of close-ups, we observe the female viewers as they respond to what they see; laughing, flinching, crying, or smiling enigmatically. The film is lit solely by the flickering light of the cinema screen, and as it moves fluidly from face to face, it builds a strange cumulative power. Kiarostami has played with notion of watching the watchers before, in his short contribution to the 2007 anthology To Each His Own Cinema, but here he daringly stretches the conceit to feature length. The result is another challenging but rewarding piece of work from this consistently remarkable filmmaker.

There are 112 women in Kiarostami's audience overall (including one special guest, whose identity I won't reveal). A few men can be glimpsed sitting threateningly in the shadows, but Kiarostami elects to focus solely on the female contingent; and who could blame him? There's an almost comical distinction between the reactions of the male and female viewers, as the men sit with uniformly glum expressions, and the women display a vast array of emotions on their often strikingly beautiful faces. Who are these women, we wonder? How free are they to enjoy the film they're seeing? I was particularly struck by the sight of one who was wearing a huge bandage over her nose, between blackened eyes - what happened to her? We hear the soundtrack of the film in the background, and Kiarostami asks us to imagine the movie for ourselves as we see how it is affecting people. When we hear the sound of violence taking place in the film – screams and limbs being sliced – and see the women averting their eyes or covering their mouths in horror, the effect is more powerful than most explicit scenes of horror would be.
Shirin is perhaps the most successful example yet of Kiarostami's oft-stated desire to create a work that speaks to each viewer individually, allowing everyone who sees it to create their own version of the movie in their mind.

Kiarostami seems to have lost interest in conventional, narrative filmmaking at this stage in his career, and is instead exploring the boundaries of cinematic form.
Ten was told entirely from the point-of-view of a car dashboard, while Five was even more minimalist, comprising of mostly empty landscape views. Like that film, Shirin runs the risk of being dismissed as an indulgence more suited to a gallery installation than a cinema, but that would be a grossly unfair judgement. Shirin will undoubtedly not be to everyone's taste, but it is oddly mesmerising, and in its intimate observation of human emotions, it gets at the essence of why we go to the movies in the first place. In turning his camera on the audience, Kiarostami is inviting us to see cinema itself in a new light.