The ultimate success of Shirin, as Sweeney rightly notes, is in the director's elaboration of off-camera space, which it bears noting has been long central to the filmmaker's formal strategies. In Shirin, Kiarostami shoots over one-hundred separate women, all framed in close-up while wearing headscarves, in a darkened movie theatre. Subsequent to a title sequence in which the director introduces us (through pages of an illuminated manuscript) to the subject of the screened film, the epic poem "Khosrow and Shirin," Kiarostami fixes on his human subjects for the full duration of the projected film's un-spooling; that is, the filmmaker never once reverses field to the picture that his female spectators (along with the small number of male viewers visible likewise over their shoulders) watch. As Kiarostami's camera trains motionlessly on their faces, we hear music, voices and ambient sounds all emanating from the off-camera screen. Thus, the filmmaker not only establishes the presence of the visually absent screen, but intimates further, through the competing panoply of the aforesaid sounds, a space that is itself the combination of both on and off-camera fields - a spatial mise en abyme.
In suggesting an off-screen, on a screen that is itself off-screen, Kiarostami further expands the space depicted in his cinema, which as always far exceeds that which the director captures with his camera. Again, as always, Kiarostami constructs the space of his film to insist on its relative minimality in contrast to the non-visible world beyond the edges of the frame, where he articulates a world unseen through characters who fail to appear on camera (as in The Wind Will Carry Us, 1999) or, as in Shirin, by a film-within-the-film that never appears on film. It is a reality forever consigned to invisibility by dint of its lack of visual materiality, save for its instantiating audio track. And for the light that implicitly dances off the screen, on to his female figures' faces, modulating the space with the changes in tone that appear on the non-existent screen.
Importantly, Shirin's off-screen film-within-the-film reads as both strongly narrative and heavily dramatic - two properties that Kiarostami's unbroken series of spectatorial close-ups lacks entirely; "Khosrow and Shirin" is a film that the director would never make - at least in the conventional form that it seems to maintain. Then there is, once again, that which Kiarostami does shoot, the hundred-plus female faces that his narrative alternates between as they watch a fictional film (with the incumbent gaps between the off-screen film's narrative and the reactions they generate essentially ex nihilo; there is thus an artificiality to the experience presented by the feature, which Juliette Binoche's sudden appearance further confers). Indeed, in choosing intimate framings of (almost exclusively) strikingly beautiful women of a variety of ages, Kiarostami undermines the logic of the mandatory coverings that all of the women wear, namely to reduce focus on the physical attributes of women. Just as Shirin is a film about invisible cinematic space, absent presence, it is also a work about women, about making their interiority visual through the act of performance, and of its calculation to bring mentation to the face's surface - even as Kiarostami rehearsed his actresses to emote less. Ultimately, in its feminine focus, Kiarostami's latest continues the more political emphasis of the director's superior Ten (2002), while reaffirming that the baseline of minimalist modernist cinema today rests in close-ups of the human face - see the director's Taste of Cherry (1997) and Ten, Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth (2006) and Wang Bing's Fengming: A Chinese Memoir (2007).
Rafi Pitts's highly imagistic It's Winter (2006), from a Mahmoud Dowlatabadi story, ranks with Shirin as an additional, deserving Iranian film of note that was overlooked in this writer's previous survey. It's Winter's heavily mythic narrative details a husband's departure for greener economic pastures abroad; his presumed death and replacement by a second, itinerant labor; and finally, the second husband's financial problems, which lead him to contemplate further migration - along with, spoiler, the return of the first husband. Pitts routinely elides process in his compressed presentation (78 mins.) of his arch-narrative - as for instance in the narrative's leaping from the first meeting between the second husband and wife, in a moment reminiscent of the subsequent In the City of Sylvia (José Luis Guerín, 2007), to the bestowal of a gift by the gentleman, to an inaudible conversation between the two, and lastly to their civil wedding - while favoring moments of dead-time, which thus places Pitts's film in the tradition of Kiarostami's earlier, poetical narrative works.
Indeed, It's Winter's narrative elisions and visual evasions serve to allegorize life in a nation where so much remains hidden from view (a strategy that is equally evident in Shirin's compendium of head-scarfed female spectators). However, unlike the visual minimalism of Kiarostami's latest, though very much in the spirit of the director's previous Through the Olive Trees, The Wind Will Carry Us and Five, Pitts's work is landscape dependent, expressing meaning through the locational, seasonal and temporal specificity of its visually rich exteriors - as for instance in a lyrical, early frame in which the first husband walks down a deserted highway in the eponymous season, or in the heavy snowfall that descends upon the village's railroad tracks, which Pitts composes in a diagonal long. This is a work where the absences are primarily narrative rather visual.