Inexhaustible variety of emotions against a void (imagined) screen

Faces, faces of beautiful, sensible, excitedly moved women fill the film of Kiarostami, unveiling their deepest sensations, exposing unabashedly their compassion with the heroes, under their veiled head. They are living through the love story of an ancient-classical epic, a melodrama, written by the Iranian poet, Nezami, 800 years ago, in which passion, desire, divorce and death occur to the bitter end. And they follow these trials with total empathy, identifying with the protagonists’ suffering and joy – without ever seeing a moment of the events.

If there exists radical, defying, yet mostly efficient evocation of nude human emotions on the screen, Kiarostami dared to venture into this extreme simplicity. He deliberately omitted everything that could be considered as “illustration” or plain visible explanation. Instead we have allusion, fine signals through the sound and spoken text in order to justify the impact, the events that call for reactions.

"The actresses were looking at a white sheet of paper next to my camera. – He said. - I asked them to think of a person or relationship in the past or present, something strongly emotional about love, then to freely imagine their own story and show the expression it would provoke. What was striking for me was the unity and coherence of their reactions, which were artificial but also true. That truth in feelings is very difficult to reach in any other kind of acting, because it relates to personal memories. There is a poem by [the 14th-century Persian poet] Hafez which says that the pain of love is constant, whoever has it, but it is also unique to each person."

How many uniqueness do we actually meet ? More than a hundred ! Who would imagine that they could be so infinitely different? similar in authenticity but never precisely the same. Pain and pleasure are, of course, universal human experiences, but the mode in which they can be revealed, finding their most personal, individual expression, will be always particular. The feelings are coming viscerally from the specific body and soul, - no one can be identical, no real presentation can be repetitive. In Kiarostami’s predilection it is exactly the gaze that is the most telling. Aren’t eyes “the mirror of the soul ?”

Gestures, small movements, the closing of the eyes or a tiny trembling of the hands add a further meaning creating a whole “orchestra” in which all the instruments begin to speak. And they address us like a great, rich musical ensemble, resonating in our mind for long.

It is interesting how empathy brings about bodily responses, not just psychologically but maybe directly as well : an immediate empathy. Tears and laughter entail almost inevitably tears and laughter, we are, apparently so forcefully and physically touched that there is no way to avoid the reaction.

In order to reinforce the power of the method Kiarostami further limited the field of vision: he decidedly works with close ups, and with a fixed camera. Even if sometimes one can perceive a fine and tiny lateral movement, since long shots prevail, our experience is truly being fixed on the faces, on their most subtle changes. In this way the time for observation and identification gets more substantial. “One can see the mentality of individuals in close ups.” - he remarks.

Kiarostami’s other striking choice is the exclusively female presence. He doesn’t recoil from saying that for him women “are more beautiful, complicated and sensational”. They are passionate and love, the passion of love, is part of their natural, instinctive existence. Far from any kind of sentimentality, he evaluates their force, self reliance and therefore the drama, the love triangle takes place among people on the same level; two men and one woman, all strong, condemned to life and suffering. And the woman for the invincible power of survival.

Watching, almost mesmerized the recurring faces and similar camera positions, the repetitive close ups and points of view, the spectator has to feel from the first moment that there is something unusual, very special in this experience. The gesture of denuding, - the deviation from the familiar movie-spectacle is nearly upsetting. But Kiarostami is fully aware of the impact of his enterprise. He has a very profound remark about the regular way of average films, as they never mind to go on the same track. He dares to call it pornographic, the uninhibited certainty of popular movies to show again and again the overly customary arrangements and situations. ”Watching things which are not supposed to be watched amounts to the experience of pornography”- he suggests, I guess – that there is no reason to resort to common places and offering self-confidently the overused clichés. To show things is not so special, much more is to think about the consequences, the impact of something other than the thing itself.

This creative and bold gesture pays off. Restriction can bring about deep novelty, a greater value. The new approach illuminates the emotional realm from an unexpected position; its naked focusing compels the spectator to pay attention to the many times overlooked, neglected, substantial aspects.

It is not the first time in the director’s œuvre that the cinematic experience and means are the major carriers of his vision. Already in his former films: in Close Up and The Taste of Cherry the true ”message” and discovery were connected with the demonstration of the cinematic expression. Without the “talent” of film the whole richness of his original insight couldn’t come across, apparently it is but a simple decisive choice, an “omission”; notwithstanding it defines the whole concept.

The concept becomes even more fortuitous because the texture of the film seems so extremely simple, unadorned. We follow real life manifestations of real people’s feelings, yet in the way of the accented presence, of the specific nature of the film form, the correlation is never negligible. As if true existence could only be seized through this “artificial” intervention. As if the richness of life could be the best addressed via the specific talent (and usage) of the camera.

There is always a kind of abstraction in Kiarostami’s movies, a strong philosophical ground of the untouched, ”eternal” human, we can name it pristine - and then, here suddenly, the power of the most contemporary invention, the emblem of our century’s new form of communication emerges and is lifted to the “essence” of the elementary existence.

Lively and artificial, true and real meet in this marriage, revealing at once the archaic and the most up-to-date, accepting their alliance as the utmost natural. With this daring gesture Kiarostami flashes up and/or he advances the complex reality of our turn of century. A strange phenomenon, a particular synthesis comes to life between ancient and new, as, at many places nowadays, within the most unmovable circumstances and traditional customs, inherited morale encounter and absorb the innovation of modern technology. Let’s think again of the veiled women’ head and the ancient story displayed in super close ups.

The art of Kiarostami conveys the startling experience of this exceptional state of existence, with such a warm intimacy, which can only born from the imperishable values of natural life. Because for him, cinema is the organic part of our life, since it is the undisturbed recording of it, the memory of it, or ”life and nothing else”, to quote the beautiful telling title of one of his best films.

Yvette Biro

Shirin (2008/Kiarostami/Iran) excerpt


Lovely article on a wonderful film, Yvette. Thanks for this.
HarryTuttle said…
Read also JAFB's review of the same film on our blog.