Powerful, mesmerizing, intermittently electrifying, Iran’s Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin shows us, another audience, an audience watching another film, one that we only hear—like a radio drama, with dialogue, human and animal sounds, sound effects, music—from start to finish. We see more than a hundred audience members reacting to it—reactions that projectively become our own.
We watch one woman after another, all but one played by Iranian actresses, sound and image combining so that eventually, unless we resist, we imaginatively experience both films as one, the film we are watching and the film that we hear. It seeps in and takes over. Men, also in the audience, remain in the background, their faces invisible. We see only the faces of heavily head-covered women, each enrobed in the theater’s darkness, her face spotlit, with waves of light rhythmically crossing that face.
Kiarostami creates this illusion. In actuality, he filmed each actress alone in his living room as she faced a blank sheet of white paper, next to his camera, that she filled with personal memories, stirred feelings. Kiarostami told none of his actresses what the nonexistent movie they were supposed to be watching was about.
The film-within-the-film, about the “manly game” of violence, oppression, cruelty, is based on an ancient, pre-Islamic tale, historically rooted, by way of a 12th-century epic poem, The Story of Khosrow and Shirin, by Hakim Nezami Ganjavi. Khosrow is the King of Persia; Shirin, the Armenian princess he desires; Farhad, the sculptor who also loves her. Khosrow banishes Farhad, ordering him to hammer out steps in distant mountains: a practical reduction of an artist’s gifts suited to his breaking heart. We hear this.
Kiarostami thus anticipates what is at stake in Iran’s upcoming presidential election.
He and Arash Sadhegi edited brilliantly.
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