August 29, 2008 / 4:49 AM / 11 years ago

Iranian film "Shirin" a rewarding challenge

VENICE (Hollywood Reporter) - A tough yet fascinating watch once you get into it, “Shirin” marks another interesting twist in the eclectic artistic career of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami.

This feature-length film, screening out of competition at the Venice International Film Festival, is simply a parade of close-ups of 113 Iranian actresses who are watching a film which we never see. Some viewers will panic when they realize there’s never going to be a reverse shot, while others will succumb to a hypnotic series of beautiful faces and a charming fairy tale read on the soundtrack.

The deceptively simple film is much closer to Kiarostami’s experimental theater play “Taize” than to such features as “A Taste of Cherry” and “The Wind Will Carry Us.” In “Taize,” a traditional religious play is performed in costume while screens show films of an Iranian audience’s emotional involvement with the story. Here the narration is taken from an 800-year-old Persian love story about Shirin, the princess of Armenia, and Khosrow, the prince of Persia. On screen, however, we see only the reactions of a female “audience” watching a film that only exists in the mind of the viewer.

In fact, Kiarostami has stated that the actresses are staring at three dots on a sheet of white cardboard off-screen, while imagining their own love stories; he chose the Shirin narration only later, after he finished filming. It is an effective trick, in any case, because the illusion that the women are watching a film is quite strong.

The camera delves deeply into the expressive, sometimes teary eyes of the silent actresses, who include major Iranian stars like Hedieh Tehrani (also credited as casting director), Leila Hatami and Niki Karimi, as well as French actress Juliette Binoche, recognizable even in a headscarf and without makeup. Everyone is democratically given equal screen time.

Delightfully full of passionate trysts in perfumed gardens, the story of Shirin and Khosrow is probably unfilmable in today’s Iran. The melodramatic tale of star-crossed love is still engrossing, even though nonstop subtitles are required for foreign audiences. Still, the narration is an essential part of the movie, creating a palpable tension between the image and the soundtrack. One’s focus tends to shift back and forth between word and image in a very noticeable way.

The story is skillfully read between the tragic and kitsch by a cast of narrators lead by Manoucher Esmaieli and is accompanied by a historical “film score” by Morteza Hananeh and Hossein Dehlavi.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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