So, what is it? Shirin, the female love interest in the canonical Persian poem Khosrow and Shirin by Nizami Ganjavi (the same poet behind the superior star-crossed lover epic Layla and Majnun), is an experimental feature film in which the only subjects presented on screen are women in a theater watching an abbreviated dramatization of Khosrow and Shirin. We hear (and, for non-Persian speakers, read) the voices of the narrator and the key characters in the play: Sasanian king Khosrow, Armenian princess Shirin, and Shirin’s would-be lover Farhad, amongst others. One doesn’t need to be familiar with the poem before watching Shirin, but it helps to know a few things—after all, a crowd of women in Iran would almost certainly be familiar with the classical poem.
Audio narration aside, Shirin is nothing but a series of close-ups of female faces seemingly reacting to the play. I must emphasize my use of “seemingly” since the actors were not watching a play, but rather staring at dots above the camera, à la Ian McKellen in Lord of the Rings. The only exception is that the women here aren’t even required to interact with anything. And perhaps that’s the biggest flaw of Kiarostami’s strange film: it fakes, and thereby skirts, the power of the close-up. It is, of course, this very strange and novel conceit that makes Shirin worth a watch in the first place. In a cinema in which everything feels rot and replicated, Kiarostami gives freshness and idiosyncrasy.
The hardest part of critiquing Shirin is viewing it for what it is and not what the critic wishes it could be. Because what it does—or what it tries to do—it does. In this case, the problem is that the viewer just doesn’t like what the film is trying to do. And that’s okay! But, as a critic, I find it more fruitful to critique films by what they try to accomplish not by what they could have. That being said, I do have two qualms with the avant-garde feature. First, the super-model to average human ratio is a bit ridiculous for an experiment so dependent on seeing ourselves in the faces of others (which the last lines read from the tragic poem make evident as one of Kiarostami’s objectives). Juliette Binoche, Golshifteh Farahani, and Mahnaz Afshar have all done literal model work, and I doubt they’re the only ones. There are plenty of normies, don’t get me wrong, but how many times have you been to a play with a minimum of three supermodels in attendance?
My second qualm is even more insignificant but because the women are not watching any real performance, their eyes are rather static for being attendees at a play. Unless you have a hard crush on one of the leads, most of our eyes will be all over the place at an average stage play. It’s a trite thing to comment on; although in a film in which the visuals look basically the same throughout (there’s not even a background!), I feel compelled to scrutinize every minute detail.
You probably won’t like Shirin—I didn’t—but I’m glad I watched it, and I just might do so again at the Harvard Film Archive’s screening for the Late Kiarostami series.
dir. Abbas Kiarostami
Shirin will screen Saturday at 7:00 p.m. at the Harvard Film Archive
Part of the continuing series: Late Kiarostami