by Jeff Strabone
While the world waits for the second Iranian Revolution, it’s important to recall that Iran is not just a place of political turmoil, nuclear ambitions, and theocratic dictatorship. It is also a place of great poetry and cinema, as the work of Abbas Kiarostami reminds us. How timely then that he has a new film out called Shirin that adapts—sort of—a twelfth-century romance and offers the world a stunning new achievement: a feature-length film whose narrative is made up entirely of reaction shots.
Kiarostami’s career has been distinguished by relentless experimentation, particularly in recent years. His film ABC Africa (2001), about AIDS orphans in Uganda, includes seven minutes of nocturnal darkness. Ten (2002) consists of ten scenes shot in a car with cameras on the dashboard. In each scene, the actors drove through Tehran leaving the director and crew behind. Five (2003) has only five stationary shots depicting whatever passed in front of the camera.
Like Dreyer’s close-ups in La passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) or Michael Snow’s zoom in Wavelength (1967), Shirin (2008) will join a very small group of films known for their singular use of a particular device. However dry or coldly formalist it may sound on paper, Shirin is a deeply moving film that follows the emotional narrative of a female audience’s reaction to watching a period melodrama full of the kind of romantic love that seems to be in short supply in modern Iran.
The literary source for the film is Nezami’s twelfth-century version of the classical Iranian story ‘Khosrow and Shirin’. In the story, Princess Shirin of Armenia loves a man named Farhad. Khosrow II, the king of Persia from 590 to 628, sends Farhad into exile because he wants Shirin for himself. For Kiarostami, the story is chiefly of interest as a historical melodrama of a suffering heroine whose romantic longings are dashed.
But we don’t see any of that in Shirin. Instead, we only hear the soundtrack of a movie version of Shirin’s story—note the absence of Khosrow’s name in Kiarostami’s title—and what we see is a series of close-ups of women at a cinema reacting to the fictional film within the film. Aside from some antiquated illustrations of the story during Shirin‘s opening credits, that’s all we ever see.
Reportedly, there are 114 women in the film, each one a professional actress, and they were not actually even watching a film. Instead, they were told to stare at some dots on a wall and pretend to react to a melodrama. Only after filming the women did Kiarostami decide what story their characters had been watching, as he explained recently in an interview at Offscreen.com:
‘The story was not important to me. I mean, I had not pinned my hopes on the story. I just thought they were watching a melodrama film. But I was uncertain about which film. During the course of production I came across things which I found congenial. Nezami—who lived almost eight centuries ago—was not only able to make drama. When it came to dramatic features his works are believed to be as good as Shakespeare’s, but also, he had a perfect understanding of women. The image he created of women was very positive; he portrayed women as being capable and self-reliant. Such personalities are rarely seen even today.’
We, the real audience, see the women of the movie audience in Shirin reacting as if to the melodrama that we and they hear: they cry, they cringe, they stare discerningly, they look away. The audience’s reactions form a narrative that follows the narrative of the film they are watching. Yet this emotional reaction narrative is entirely a feat of editing on Kiarostami’s part. The raw material of the film is little more than shots of women making faces, edited to match a soundtrack of an imaginary film. So how can this film work as anything more than a formal experiment?
The answer has a lot to do with film melodrama’s historic identification with women and gay men. One question, involuntary or not, that the film answers is, What do women look like when watching a ‘women’s picture’, as American melodramas of the post-war era used to be known? To 1950s audiences of American housewives, films like Douglas Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows (1956) were opportunities to indulge romantic aspirations in a distinctly unromantic society. One can’t help but see the twenty-first-century Iranian women of Shirin in a similar light. In a society where romance has to be hidden from public view, they go to the movies for their melodramatic fill.
Counter-intuitively, I found myself giving way to strong identification with the characters and action—such as it is—of the film. Normally, I analyze a film very closely while watching it, staying conscious at all times of the creative decisions and formal devices that went into making it. Watching Shirin, I was deeply absorbed in the fiction, feeling what the women felt, imagining them projecting their romantic hopes on the screen only to see them dashed in the end.
Even more unexpectedly, I found myself thinking, for the first time, of a link between Kiarostami and Pedro Almodóvar. It would be easy to cast Kiarostami as an emotional minimalist and Almodóvar as a maximalist, but that would be false. Kiarostami’s work often finds its most highly charged moments amid his forays into reducing his own directorial impact. Take Ten for instance, often described as simply a series of ten scenes of a taxi in Tehran. Yet those scenes, of a female taxi driver and ten of her fares, are as emotionally hot as anything I’ve seen this decade. Her young son’s anger at her over his parents’ divorce is ferocious. They fight in a way that mother and son do in no other film that I know. Beneath the film’s experimental surface beats the raging heart of a powerful melodrama.
Almodóvar is of course a student, and satirist, of melodrama. His body of work relentlessly explores the power of desire and our powerlessness to fight our feelings. As I watched Shirin, I realized that I had seen another film where the tears that fall from a character’s eyes while watching a show are important to the plot. That film is Almodóvar’s Hable con ella (Talk to Her) (2002). The film’s protagonist Marco Zuluaga, played by Darío Grandinetti, is the man of feeling. When we first see him, he is crying at a Pina Bausch performance, and Benigno, sitting near him, is struck by the intensity of his feeling.
There are men in the background in Shirin, but they are never shot in close-up. They appear to be unmoved by the epic romance that moves the women around them. The film’s sympathies are clearly with sympathy. By their resistance to feeling, the men appear to hover menacingly over the women. The appearance of unfeeling men and weeping women at a melodrama may, if read a certain way, be Kiarostami’s most direct political statement about Iran. There, too, lies the deep, underlying similarity to Almodóvar: in heroically depicting susceptibility to feeling and wanting to make the world safe for more of it.
A couple of years ago , I wrote of Kiarostami that his work is a restless and relentless investigation of the possibilities and limits of film form, filmic time, directing, and the categories of narrative and documentary. I still think that’s true, but now I see that that is only half the story. Shirin‘s elevation of melodrama, and its traditional audience, has made me reassess his entire œuvre. I realize more clearly now that Kiarostami has always been a deeply emotional filmmaker. How could someone who began making children’s films not be? Isn’t the climax of Close-Up (1990) not the court’s verdict but Sobzian’s tears when he meets the real Makhmalbaf? Isn’t the tragedy of A Taste of Cherry (1997) that the suicidal protagonist has lost his feeling?
One readily thinks of Almodóvar disinhibiting desire and feeling in Spain after the long, repressive night of Franco’s fascist tyranny. But what of Kiarostami’s explorations—and in the case of Shirin, arguably a defense—of feeling, indeed while emotional repression is still a compelling state interest where he’s from? Kiarostami has never been just a formalist but always an artist of great emotional depth as well. One thing that distinguishes him among his contemporaries is that he can reach extremes of both feeling and formalism simultaneously. I know that to some people Shirin will sound like a dreadfully boring film where nothing happens. In fact, everything that ever happens at any movie—all the emotional highs and lows—happens in this movie. What’s different is that this time we are watching an audience’s emotions rather than being the audience having those emotions. But if sympathy is still alive in this world—and the world’s concern for Iran’s ongoing post-election protests suggest that it is—then the emotions of the Iranian women we see on the movie screen will be ours as well through the power of imagination. This is a film for every thinking and feeling person in the world.
Shirin is screening in London and will hopefully open soon in the U.S.