Shirin is made up of shots of over a hundred women, young and old – Iranian women, though a well-known French woman, Juliette Binoche also appears – who are watching a film in a cinema. No men, though they can sometimes be glimpsed in the background, as other members of the audience. And that's all we see throughout. None of the women speak, but we watch as these women are absorbed in the drama of the film that we hear but never see – the romance, drama, pathos and occasional violence that is conveyed on the soundtrack.
As a concept, Shirin could have been a short film or it could have been many times the length that it is. What gives it its structure is the film on the screen that is (virtually) in the place where we, the audience for Shirin, are sitting. This is based on Khusraw and Shirin by Farrideh Golbou, derived originally from a thirteenth-century Persian narrative poem by Nezami, a tragic tale of love and sacrifice with one of the great Middle-Eastern heroines. This forms the film's sole soundtrack, as dense and intricately constructed as a radio play.
The choice of storyline is no accident. When the position of women in Middle-Eastern Islamic societies remains a vexed issue, Shirin is Abbas Kiarostami's tribute to women, to their strength and their emotional intelligence. Shirin is very much a contemplative work, and what we are invited to contemplate is the female face, young and old alike, finding the beauty in each one. This is territory where Kiarostami has been before, in Ten most notably. While direct criticism of the treatment of women in Iranian society might attract censorship (as it did with, amongst others, Kiarostami's former collaborator Jafar Panahi's The Circle), Shirin's approach is perhaps just as subversive and more indirectly so, though maybe not without avoiding putting women on a pedestal.
In his more recent films, Kiarostami has moved away from strictly narrative cinema. Via the ten vignettes of Ten and the unpeopled five of Five, and now Shirin, this approach takes cinema into the realms of the art installation. Kiarostami's aim to remove the director from the film is somewhat disingenuous, as the results are still the results of artifice, in how they are constructed and edited together – not to mention the contribution made by Shirin's soundtrack. From the Chinese-box structure of the Koker trilogy, via Close-Up and Taste of Cherry, Kiarostami has been fascinated by the interface between “reality” and “fiction”, and Shirin is a further step in that process for one of the world's leading filmmakers.
Shirin is released on DVD by the BFI on a single dual-layered disc encoded for Region 2 only.
The transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced. The artworks against which the opening credits appear are framed by black on all four sides.. As the shots in the film itself are in semi-darkness, it's not easy to tell, but these appear to be “windowboxed” as well, presumably in an effort to minimise damage due to overscan .(Look at how the blue of the chair on screen right is cut off in the screengrab above.) No problems otherwise with this transfer, which is richly, if darkly, coloured, and the skintones of these (mostly) Middle-Eastern women look accurate to me.
As the soundtrack is supposedly coming from roughly where you are sitting, you might expect this mix (in uncompressed LPCM 2.0) to be all surround and nothing else. However, that's true for the music and the sound effects, but the dialogue still comes out of the centre speaker. Kudos again for the use of uncompressed sound, which sounds full and warm, and does this complex soundtrack justice.
There's only one extra on the disc, and it's a substantial one. Taste of Shirin (26:54) is a documentary on the making of the film, directed by Hamideh Razavi. There is no voiceover narration and none is needed. Razavi simply observes Kiarostami at work with the actresses who apepar on screen and the actors and actresses who contribute to the soundtrack. This documentary is presented in 4:3 and like the feature also has a LPCM 2.0 soundtrack. For both the feature and this extra, English subtitles are provided, and Farsi speakers can turn them off.
A film such as this could certainly bear some context, and fortunately that is provided in the sixteen-page (plus covers) booklet provided with this DVD. There are two essays. Geoff Andrew's “Kiarostami and the Art of the Invisible”, puts Shirin in the context of the director's career to date. Fateneh Keshavarz's “Shirin: Womanhood Carried Through Centuries” discusses the original narrative poem and its significance to Iranians and to Iranian women in particular. Also included in the booklet are credits for Shirin and Taste of Shirin, and some well reproduced Iranian artworks.