It has been said many times over that the best seat in the house in a theater is at the very front, looking back at all the upturned faces. Truffaut best epitomized this in The 400 Blows with his evocative shot of kids watching a show. Shirin, at once Kiarostami's return to cinema after spending the first decade of the new millennium with increasingly minimalistic films shot on digital cameras and a continuation of those movies, takes this notion to an almost experimental endpoint.
Ostensibly a film about the classical Persian, romantic myth of Shirin and Khosrow, Shirin is instead a film about an audience watching a film about the romantic myth of Shirin and Khosrow. This setup naturally fits within Kiarostami's oeuvre of dividing the line between truth and cinema, yet Shirin does not employ the alternating documentary and fiction that complicates and deepens the narratives of his best work. Shirin is purely fictional, yet its falsity is more real than some of the genuine images Kiarostami has captured over the years.
Armed with 113 Iranian actresses (and Juliette Binoche, appearing in a cameo while she was in Iran to discuss working with the director on his subsequent feature), Kiarostami creates a film so simple that it borders on the avant-garde: we pick up the details of the movie from the soundtrack and, when that fails, from the reactions of the women watching the film.
In the process, he constructs a movie without really making one. Kiarostami shot the actresses without them knowing what they were meant to be watching; he even shot some of them in his house. He used similar techniques to get the reactions of characters in previous films, particularly in his many scenes in cars. And just as all of those sequences managed to convey a deep humanity and convincing emotional response out of a fabricated context, so too do the looks on the women's faces communicate a clear progression of shared yet isolated emotional reaction.
Understanding the strange dichotomy of viewing art, Kiarostami emphasizes the discrepancy of seeing a movie within an audience yet ultimately processing it alone. Filmmakers face that challenge all the time, either making their film broad to have the maximum impact or more personal to appeal to the individual internalization of a film's emotional projection. In the world that Kiarostami creates out of the darkness of his false theater, the unseen film manages to unite the two, with tears beginning to roll down the cheeks of the audience past the 30-minute mark, slight smiles tugging at the lips at the moments of quiet humor and the soft creak of shifting weight as the moviegoers lean forward in suspense. Each of the actresses gives a terrific performance of silent cinema, and David Bordwell is right (as ever) to note that their reactions to Shirin's martyrdom on the screen are so pure and empathetic that the best comparison is not with Godard's Vivre sa vie but the film that Anna Karina's prostitute watched in the theater, Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc.
The ties that bind all of these films are, of course, the female characters, and Shirin embodies the same martyrdom as the other two in much subtler ways. Through dialogue and narration, we pick up that Shirin, an Armenian princess, falls in love with the Persian king Khosrow, only for his bloodlust in battle to repulse Shirin and political opportunity to give his hand to a Roman princess in marriage. Dejected, Shirin manages to find love in the poet and carver Farhad, who displays more devotion and innocence toward the princess than the entitled Khosrow ever could.
As tears stream down faces, we realize that where the inference between Falconetti's Joan and Karina's Nana is open, the connection that links Joan of Arc and the women watching here is more obvious even as it is more nuanced. These women aren't doomed like Joan or Nana, but they are trapped in a patriarchal system that in the best of cases restricts freedom and, in the worst, harms and even kills women. As Khosrow interferes in Shirin's happiness to his own ends, the reactions of the women convey an emotion that runs deeper than mere involvement with the film. They see their own plight in Shirin's pain. Dreyer almost never showed Joan in a shot with a man, using shot/reverse shot structures to maximize the impact by isolating Joan in the frame and magnifying the effect of men looking down upon her. Kiarostami never even shows us the tormentor, as if the actions of Khosrow and, by extension, the patriarchy are so immense that they cannot be adequately squeezed into the frame. Here, Binoche's cameo fulfills a broader purpose: without makeup and scarved in a hijab, it's almost impossible to discern her from the Iranian women, and Kiarostami deftly uses her to globalize the issue into something that affects women the world over and not merely in openly oppressive regimes.
Never before has Kiarostami's feminism been more plain. He has had difficulty displaying it in the past, what with the Iranian theocracy's restrictive policies concerning women -- so many Iranian films are made out in the open and never in a house, in fact, because it's illegal to show a woman without her hijab -- but here he communicates volumes with only the slightest voiceover narration. The women reflect Shirin's disgust as they turn away from the sound of battles, a sharp contrast to the men in the audience, who look bored every time except when an action sequence is clearly playing on the screen. "Damn this man's game that we call love," comes an exasperated voice from the screen, and considering how Shirin finds herself in the middle of a struggle despite her clear preference for one man, it's not hard to see romance as a leftover of primitive territoriality among unevolved males while women are forced to wait for men to reach their level of sophistication and emotional maturity.
In broader terms, Shirin simply marks a master's return to true cinema, even if he takes the long way 'round. If it really does have a connection to The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent film, Shirin inverts the structure of that film by presenting blind cinema. We pick up the story from the soundtrack which is more nuanced and evocative than any of the boisterous blockbusters that take home sound editing Oscars year after year. Sounds you don't expect from a romantic melodrama appear in the mix, such as crows cawing, owls hooting, horses galloping, the battle sounds of clanging steel and the wet thump of blades carving into flesh. The orchestration can be teasing, bombastic, but also minimalistic, with a barely perceptible hum undercutting the sound at times. Most bizarre is the ambient noise of water dripping at several intervals, a noise that must be coming from the theater speakers but doesn't seem to have any reason to exist in the screened film. Maybe that dripping is simply the sound of tears pooling under the eyes before the audience finally sheds them.
As I watched, I couldn't help but wonder if, on some level, Shirin wasn't Kiarostami's sarcastic reply to colleagues and supportive critics who wanted him to return to narrative filmmaking after his experiments. Oh, the director returned to the cinema, alright, but he does so in a way that makes his digital movies look straightforward. There's no way to know where the film is at any moment, nothing to signify which face is the most important and thus the last to be shown. One can imagine him sitting his excited friends in a screening room, declaring "I have returned" and taken his spot at the front of theater to watch Shirin have its effect on them. By the same token, the movie is so emotionally resonant that, even if it is a joke, it is built on a foundation of sincerity that turns a movie with only the sparest parts into riveting cinema. Furthermore, the nature of its construction speaks to the power of film to generate meaning from nothing, and how editing is what ultimately tugs the heart.
What would such a film be like if it showed an American film to an American audience? This is cynicism speaking, but I imagine we'd see an audience of people focused on everything but the film, with people whispering, texting, checking watches. Then when the movie ended, a few would lazily turn to friends and mutter, "That was awesome" or "That sucked" with all the conviction of a porn star delivering a line of dialogue. Here, Kiarostami creates a shared experience, not simply among the fictive audience but those watching Shirin. But he especially speaks to the women, and if there's a driving force behind the film, it's the hope that women will realize how the issues that affect each of them affect all of them and have done for centuries. Is it any wonder, then, that Kiarostami had to head to Europe to make his next film? If he'd continued on this path in native Iran, he'd be imprisoned by now.