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Movies, minus the popcorn

A series of close-ups of women at the cinema is intriguing, but hardly great art

Shirin (PG)
dir: Abbas Kiarostami

Rudo y Cursi (15)
dir: Carlos Cuarón

Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin is comprised entirely of close-ups of women as they sit in a cinema watching a film based on a 12th-century Persian poem about two ill-fated lovers. We can hear the other film throughout – the dialogue and music, the galloping hooves and clanging swords, and a dripping noise that may be a comment on inadequate plumbing in Iranian cinemas. But all we see is the women, their faces framed by headscarves, staring out at us. They are Iranian actors, with the glaring exception of Juliette Binoche, who, rumour has it, wandered in by mistake after buying a ticket for Dude, Where’s My Car?.

Why the focus on women? “Because women are more beautiful, complicated and sensational,” according to the director. “Being in love is part of their definition.” I’ve never bought the claims for Kiarostami as an innovator. (Anything he can do, Andy Warhol did better.) And his insistence on coming out with guff like that, which could have been lifted straight from a Paulo Coelho novel, doesn’t help.

But if Shirin is not a great film, it is a great DIY film – an experience where the level of stimulation you get corresponds precisely to the extent of your input. Prolonged exposure to the women’s faces leads you to speculate, say, on why this viewer averted her gaze solemnly during one scene, or why that one’s facial muscles seem to stiffen at the line, “Haven’t I suffered enough?” (The film errs on the side of explicitness only once, showing a bruised face partly hidden by a Chinatown bandage.)

If you go with it, you can find you’ve mapped out in your head some entertaining backstories for these women which should entitle you to a cut of the box-office takings, or at the very least a co-writing credit. Despite the contemplative mood of the picture, it sometimes feels like a more highbrow version of Yoko Ono’s No 4 aka Bottoms. (Kiarostami could have called his film Tops.) There’s something prissy and bourgeois, too, about its idealised image of public cinema-going: no unhinged figures disrupting the film by rummaging noisily in a plastic bag full of spanners, no trilling mobile phones answered with the inevitable response of: “I’m in the cinema, innit.”

And where’s all the popcorn? Going to the movies in the early 21st century is nothing like attending church, even for those of us who worship film. When it comes to authenticity, Shirin has nothing on Gremlins, where our on-screen surrogates are petulant demons, tearing up the auditorium like 1970s punks at the Screen on the Green in north London, or the recent Tony Manero, in which an audience member expresses
his disgust at Grease by murdering the projectionist. (We’ve all been there.)

With his debut picture, Rudo y Cursi, Carlos Cuarón arrives flanked by the film-making equivalent of those intimidating posses that clog up the VIP sections of nightclubs. The cast is headed by Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, the likely lads last seen together in Y tu mamá también. That was directed by Cuarón’s elder brother Alfonso, who serves here as producer, alongside the other big guns of Mexican cinema, Guillermo del Toro and Alejandro González Iñárritu. With that kind of clout, it’s a pleasant surprise to find the film itself is a rather modest, jolly affair.

The title means “tough and corny” but the film is neither. It’s a comedy that knows when to get serious. It wears its ruminations on fate lightly, but it wears them all the same.

Beto (Luna) and Tato (Bernal) are poor half-brothers who are spotted playing football by a talent scout and propelled into the professional soccer league in Mexico City. For all the goofiness of its heroes, this is a flatly unromantic take on the sporting life, all homoerotic initiation rites and five-to-a-room boarding. Even the most broadly comic scenes, arising from Tato’s inability to handle fame and adoration with dignity, are shot through with melancholy, and not just because it’s too late now for Cristiano Ronaldo to learn from them.

Gradually the picture reveals itself also to be a witty homage. It has a dry, knowing narrator; gambling plays a big part in the plot; and one character loses a leg by the end of the film. If Rudo y Cursi isn’t a minor Mexican Barry Lyndon, then Ronaldo is Portuguese for “humility”.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 29 June 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Escape