4 October 2008 | MaxBorg89
A frustrating but also endearing piece of difficult simplicity
Filmmakers like David Lynch or early Darren Aronofsky (Pi) have been branded as experimental, extreme, uncommercial. Okay, so their work is occasionally difficult, but at least they know how to reach out to the audience. Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin, on the other hand, gives a new definition to the adjective "experimental", its style being so radical no marketing campaign in the world would be able to endorse it outside a film festival like Venice (which is where I saw the film).
Kiarostami, always a festival favorite, has truly gone where no man's ever been before with his adaptation of a classic Persian story from the twelfth century. The predictably sad tale revolves around a woman, Shirin, and her being coveted by two different men. A yarn as old as humanity, most will say. What can the director do to make it fresh and original?
The answer is of the most audacious kind: instead of doing a straightforward movie, Kiarostami chose to film a stage version of the story, with a twist - we never actually see what happens on the stage. The whole 90-minute bulk of the film consists of a series of close-ups of over a hundred Iranian women (plus Juliette Binoche in a three-shot cameo) who are watching the play. All the action takes place off-camera, with voices and sounds allowing us to imagine what we should be looking at.
With such an unconventional approach, Shirin is very simple and at the same time quite difficult. Few, if any, average moviegoers will choose it over something more traditional, and those who do will almost certainly find it boring. That's a pity, because the extreme style does serve a point, although it isn't entirely clear at first. The key to understanding the picture lies in focusing only on the actresses' faces: the minute one stops paying attention to the soundtrack (I was helped in that by the fact that the subtitles were faulty and didn't show up until 40 seconds after the lines had been spoken), it becomes easier to appreciate the simple beauty of Kiarostami's choice and feel a kind of empathy with those women, as if they were the real protagonists (and in a way, they are).
So yes, Shirin is perhaps the most uncommercial film that will ever have been made, but since when does that translate as "unwatchable"? It's an acquired taste, for sure, but after the initial wave of frustration it might be possible to feel a more positive emotion kick in.