Judge Dave Ryan thought it was unfortunate that the protagonist of this Iranian film believed himself to be a cow, but he really needed the milk.
Gaav (The Cow, in English) is the second feature film by acclaimed Iranian director Dariush Mehrjui, and a landmark film in Iranian cinematic history. The second film to be financed by the Shah of Iran after he decided to revitalize the Iranian film industry, it was promptly banned after completion. The Shah felt its portrayal of simple village life in Iran gave the wrong impression to outsiders. (Hindsight tells us that he should have been more concerned about the impression he was giving to insiders…) The film was smuggled out of Iran in 1970, and subsequently won several awards at the Venice Film Festival.
Facts of the Case
Masht Hassan (Ezzatolah Entezami, Hamoun) is a simple farmer living in a poor village somewhere in the semi-arid high plains of central Iran. Hassan doesn't have much, but he does own the village cow. The cow appears to be content, at least as content as a cow can be while living in a semi-arid village in Iran. The cow is also expecting. Hassan dotes on his cow, treating her more like a daughter than a farm animal. He even buys her jewelry.
One day, Hassan goes off to conduct some business. While he's gone, the unthinkable happens: his cow unexpectedly dies. The village immediately comes together to decide how to handle this. They're positive that Hassan will not respond well to the loss of his cow, to which he was so attached. They come up with a plan—they'll bury the cow in an abandoned well, and tell Hassan that the cow has run off. To make the story more compelling, one of the villagers will stay hidden out of sight, while the other villagers say that he's gone to look for the lost cow.
Hassan returns, and the villagers' plan goes into effect. But Hassan is no fool—he knows his cow would have no reason to run off, and suspects that the villagers are lying to him. At some point he has a kind of mental breakdown, and begins to believe that he is his cow, and Hassan is somewhere else, protecting him. As he becomes more and more bovine, his fellow villagers struggle to somehow help their friend.
Heavily influenced by both the Italian Neorealism movement and the New Wave French filmmakers of the 1950s and '60s, Gaav is an impressive achievement—given the limited resources Mehrjui had at his disposal. It's beautifully composed (from a visual standpoint)—you get tastes of all of Mehrjui's influences, from Fellini to Godard. There's even a couple of visual nods to Bergman thrown in for good measure.
This particular story (based on a short story by Iranian author Gholam-Hossein Saedi) stands or falls on its lead, the Hassan character. Thankfully, Entezami turns in a gripping performance as the man/cow at the center of this tragic tale. It's a very fine line between "guy acting like a cow" and "guy thinking he's a cow"—and Entezami manages to stay on the latter side at all times. He even sounds like an animal in distress when he "moos" pitifully. His fellow villagers are equally compelling. Mehrjui seems to have made "actors with compelling faces" a key casting criterion, as did his Italian influences. Sometimes, a face can tell a story on its own; that cinematic idea is vividly on display in Gaav.
The story itself works on many levels, too—it's not solely focused on Hassan. There are subplots that explore the superstitions and paranoia that small village life can generate. The path the villagers take in responding to Hassan's breakdown is interesting as well. Eventually, they're forced to simply treat him as if he were a cow. If they can't get him to respond to them, there's no hope of helping him, so they're forced to deal with Hassan on his terms.
First Run Features adds a couple of valuable extras here. A brief (and fairly recent) interview with Mehrjui is included; he goes into some detail about his influences and experiences making the picture. Some "liner notes" by English film critic Godfrey Cheshire provide additional information on the film and its place in Iranian film history. A brief text biography of Mehrjui is also provided.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
It's a good film—given Mehrjui's resources. Which weren't great. The film is in relatively poor shape, and was not restored for this release. It appears to have been shot on 16mm film stock as well. As such, it looks fairly bad—it has the overall look of a Coleman Francis film. (This film, however, actually makes sense—unlike the Francis films.)
Mehrjui is a very visual director, but his cinematography leaves something to be desired. There are a lot of night scenes in this film, most of which are poorly-lit. He seemed to have been aiming for a noir-like "shadows moving in the darkness" look in many scenes—but you have to be able to see that there are shadows moving in the dark for that to work. Black on black doesn't cut it.
The audio track is also somewhat problematic. I've rarely seen a film with such wildly disparate volume levels—about 3/4 of the film is at the "barely audible" level, with the other quarter at "heavy screaming." Even my iPod can digitally balance an audio track; I don't see why that couldn't have been done with this film. It's jarring to have a dozen people shouting in Farsi right after you've been straining to hear subtle sound effects in the background.
Finally, the pacing in the film is, to be generous, a bit languid. It's only a hundred minutes long, but it's a lengthy hundred minutes. Some of the subplots are ill-explained, which made me feel as if the movie were intentionally sidetracking its own story. We need to stay focused on Hassan and the villagers, not on extraneous side issues.
Gaav was twice voted the "best Iranian film ever" by Iranian film critics, and is credited with influencing the Ayatollah Khomeini to permit filmmaking in Iran after that country's Islamic Revolution. As such, it's probably more interesting for Iranians and Iranian film fans than to the general public. But it does go to show that the Neorealist influence was also felt outside of Europe and America, resulting in some successful and compelling, but decidedly non-"Western," cinema.
First Run Features is given a pat on the back, and a big glass of chocolate milk, for continuing the good work of bringing quality foreign cinema to DVD. Hassan gets an extra bale of hay and a bucket of really fresh water.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
• Interview with Director Dariush Mehrjui
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