Reviewed by: Max Crawford

Shirin, the latest work from acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, will no doubt be a disappointment to many. A bold experiment, it stands as a fine example of how difficult it can be to translate such an innovative undertaking into a watchable film experience.

The plot, such as it is, follows a retelling of the 12th-century Persian love story Khosrow and Shirin. The medium is that of a cinema audience: from a fixed camera position, we are shown a series of close-ups of women's faces, observing their emotional responses to the off-screen romantic tragedy that we never see. The dialogue and sound effects are in place, but all the camera ever shows us is a series of reaction shots: women crying, laughing, staring in rapt attention. We are invited both to infer the nuances of the story and to contemplate what personal experiences in these women's' lives the tale may call to mind.

There's a powerful idea at the heart of Shirin, and it's unfortunate that it found expression in the form of a feature film. The power lies in the reactions, rather than the narrative, and there's no need to tie the viewer into the strictures imposed by such a form. As an art installation piece the work would be far more accessible, as it's a difficult premise to sustain uninterrupted for a full hour and a half.

Another problem is the language barrier. Khosrow and Shirin is told in Persian, and subtitling can't help but compromise a film of this nature. The focus should be on the visuals, on the reaction shots, with the narrative filtering through in audio as a secondary consideration, a grounding point for the audience's emotional outpouring. Forcing the viewer to take in the narrative visually provides too much of a distraction, leading to the uncanny sensation that one is very slowly reading a book while an uncomfortably-close woman weeps at something over one's shoulder. Removing the subtitles entirely would be the better compromise.

A film with potential, then, but ultimately a failed experiment, Shirin too often devolves into a game of spot-the-Juliette-Binoche (the French actress crops up several times amongst the 100-plus Iranian women featured). With patience the film can be a rewarding experience, but it's hard to shake the sensation that it ought to be something more.

Reviewed on: 26 Jun 2009
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An experimental retelling of a classic Persian tragedy.
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Director: Abbas Kiarostami

Starring: Golshifteh Farahani, Mahnaz Afshar, Taraneh Alidoosti, Juliette Binoche, Niki Karimi

Year: 2008

Runtime: 92 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: Iran


EIFF 2009

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