If a pre-Islamic Persian king and an Armenian princess cannot make love work, than what hope does anyone have? Considered the rough Persian equivalents of Romeo and Juliet, Khosrow and Shirin ruled their respective kingdoms, but their love was always beset with complications. It would be fascinating to see Abbas Kiarostami take on the legendary romance, but he tells the tale immortalized in Nizami Ganjavi’s epic poem rather obliquely in Shirin, which screens tonight as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s retrospective series, A Close-Up of Abbas Kiarostami.
Perhaps someone has adapted Khosrow and Shirin for the big screen, but it was not really Kiarostami. Instead, he filmed over one hundred Iranian actresses and Juliette Binoche as they watch that hypothetical movie. At least it has a soundtrack, so viewers can follow the story that has tears flowing almost right from the start. The two protagonists fall deeply in love with each other before they even meet properly. Naturally, their star-crossed love never runs smoothly. Eventually, Khosrow marries Caesar’s daughter to secure Rome’s military support retaking his former throne. It is a long marriage, complete with kids. Meanwhile, Shirin abdicates, moving to Iran to live a life of self-denial and waiting. However, the plan almost veers off into left field when she meets this smitten stone-carver named Farhad.
It sounds like great epic stuff, but that’s as far as we can tell. Shirin is another example of Kiarostami subverting and de-privileging narrative. For Kiarostami, what the epic romance means to the famous viewers is more important than the tale itself. The results are rather more interesting in theory than as a sustained viewing experience.
To be fair, Shirin offers a parade of familiar faces for those well versed in Iranian cinema. Indeed, it is rather significant who is present and who is not. For instance, Golshifteh Farahani appears late in the film, but she would soon find herself disowned by her country for appearing in a Western film, Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies. Of course, Shohreh Aghdashloo, the star of Kiarostami’s pre-Revolutionary The Report was long gone. Also missing from the proceedings is the then lesser known Marzieh Vafamehr, who would later be sentenced to ninety lashes and a year in prison (an insane judgment even by current standards of the Islamist regime) for appearing in My Tehran for Sale. However, Leila Hatami of the future Oscar winner A Separation is present and accounted for.
Often feeling rife with meaning, Kiarostami’s films seem to spur deep tealeaf reading. Arguably, the auteur gives the epic a pronounced feminist spin, emphasizing how much Shirin sacrificed compared to Khosrow’s relative comfort. It is a reading encouraged by the actresses’ heavy emotional responses to what they were not really seeing. Yet, there is just as often a lingering doubt as to just how much is wishful interpretation with Kiarostami, who has never taken social criticism as far as his former protégé Jafar Panahi.