Monday, December 11, 2006

25. Iranian director Dariush Mehrjui's "Gaav" (The Cow, 1969): Stunning in simplicity but providing fodder for thought


This is a major work of cinema. It might not be well known but this film ranks with Fellini's La Strada, De Sica's The Bicycle Thief, or Mrinal Sen's Oka Oori Katha based on Premchand's story--Coffin. Why is it a major work? A UCLA graduate makes a film far removed from Hollywood approaches to cinema in Iran during the Shah's regime. The film was made 10 years before Shah quit Iran and was promptly banned. It was smuggled out of Iran to be shown at the Venice Film Festival to win an award, even without subtitles.

The film does not require subtitles. It's visual. It's simple. The story is set in a remote Iranian village, where owning a cow for subsistence is a sign of prosperity. The barren landscape (true of a large part of Iran) reminds you of Grigory Kozintsev's film landscapes as in Korol Lir (the Russian King Lear) where the landscape becomes a character of the story.

The sudden unnatural death of the cow unsettles the village. Hassan, the owner of the cow, who nursed it as his own child, is away and would be shocked on his return. Eslam, the smartest among the villagers, devise a plan to bury the cow and not tell the poor man the truth. Hassan returns home and is soon so shocked that he loses his senses. He first imagines that the cow is still there and ultimately his sickness deteriorates as he imagines himself to be the cow, eats hay, and says "Hassan" his master will protect him from marauding Bolouris (bandits from another village). Eslam realizes that Hassan needs medical attention and decides to take him to the nearest hospital. He is dragged out like a cow. "Hassan" is beaten as an animal as he is not cooperative to the shock of some humanistic villagers. The demented Hassan, with the force of an animal breaks free, to seek his only freedom from reality--death.

The film stuns you. Forget Iran, forget the cow. Replace the scenario with any person close to his earthly possessions and what happens when that person is suddenly deprived of them and you will get inside the characters as Fellini, De Sica or Sen demonstrated in their cinema.



Every frame of the film is carefully chosen. The realism afforded by the story will grip any sensitive viewer. There is a visually arresting use of a small window in the wall of the cowshed through which the villagers watch the goings on within the cowshed. The directors use of the window serves two purposes--it gives the villagers a perspective of the cowshed and the viewer a perspective of the cowshed watchers.

The film is also a great essay on the effects of hiding truth from society and the cascading fallouts of such actions.

But there is more. Director Mehrjui affords layers of meaning to his "simplistic" cinema. There is veiled criticism of blind aspects religious rituals (Shia Islam), a critical look of stupid villagers dealing with their village idiots, the jealous neighbors, the indifferent neighbors, the village thief--all elements of life around us, not limited to a village in Iran. The political layering is not merely limited to the poverty but the politics of hiding truth and the long term effect it has on society. Ironically, there are values among the poorest of the poor--the hide of a "poisoned?" animal cannot be sold!



I was lucky to catch up with the rare screening of this film at the on-going International Film Festival of Kerala, India, that devoted a retrospective section of early Iranian cinema.

This is a film that should make Iran proud. It is truly a gift to world cinema.

P.S. The Cow is one of the author's top 100 films

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