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With: Juliette Binoche, Mahnaz Afshar, Taraneh Alidoosti, Golshifteh Farahani, Niki Karimi
Written by: n/a
Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: Persian/Farsi, with English subtitles
Running Time: 90
Date: 09/01/2008

Shirin (2009)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Watching Movies

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The great Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami continues on his potentially alienating path away from art house success and into offbeat, experimental works. To most viewers, his new Shirin will perhaps be even more irritating than Five (2003), especially given that Shirin actually features a few recognizable faces. But it's a mistake to suggest that Kiarostami has abandoned narrative or storytelling altogether; all of the films from his "experimental" period (ABC Africa, Ten and Five) feature little stories, and Shirin especially has a doozy of a story.

The setup is very simple. More than 100 women assemble in a theater to watch a movie. The movie is "Shirin," and in Iran it's a well-known classic star-crossed lovers tale, not unlike "Romeo & Juliet" in the West. We never see this movie; we only hear the soundtrack. Instead, every frame of Shirin is focused on the faces of the women in the crowd; we can see the light from the screen playing across their faces.

Juliette Binoche is one of the women, but she gets equal treatment as all the others, turning up three times for about 20-30 seconds each time, with no dialogue. Some of the other actresses include Mahnaz Afshar (Cease Fire), Taraneh Alidoosti (Fireworks Wednesday), Golshifteh Farahani (Body of Lies), Niki Karimi (A Few Days Later).

We watch them as they absorb the tale, perhaps taking in what it all means, finding some connection from their own lives. Sometimes they adjust their scarves or make themselves more comfortable. Sometimes they're indifferent, and sometimes they cry. As the story gets closer to its climax, the emotion in the crowd builds.

It appears that Kiarostami wishes to say something about the power of women -- especially as the movie moves toward its second half and we begin to see the oppressive faces and beards of men lurking in the backgrounds -- even if his message isn't concretely spelled out. Or perhaps he's saying something about the power of cinema, the singular, emotional power of the screen and the dark.

In any case, Shirin isn't nearly as dull as it sounds; the melodramatic, passionate "Shirin" story drives everything forward, and gazing at the faces of these amazing women can be a compelling experience in itself.

Shirin never received distribution in the United States, but the good folks at BFI were kind enough to send me a screener for the new DVD release. It comes with a surprising, informative documentary that takes us step-by-step through the making of the film. As of 2010, it is available in the United States as well.

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