Judge Joe Armenio once wove an elaborate narrative carpet in Home Ec class. Okay. No, he didn't.
Life is color!
Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf had a good year in 1996, making both Gabbeh and A Moment of Innocence, also released recently by New Yorker Films. Both are films of great power, among the highlights of the New Iranian cinema of the 1990s, but on the surface they appear to have little in common. In A Moment of Innocence, Makhmalbaf and cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari used an urban setting, a restrained master-shot style, and a quiet, wintry palette; Gabbeh has an air of rural timelessness, gains much of its power from its striking editing, and bursts with color. Both films, though, use the materials of documentary (real settings, non-professional actors playing "themselves") to deeply imaginative ends that blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction to the extent that they become meaningless. Gabbeh and A Moment of Innocence are also, on a thematic level, both investigations into the personal origins of art; in A Moment of Innocence the art in question is the cinema itself, while Gabbeh deals with the woven narrative rugs of central Iranian nomads. The seemingly immense gap between urban cineaste and rural carpet-weaver is, for Makhmalbaf, superficial. These are both films that, with a quiet, unpretentious grace, are meditations on the biggest themes of all: the passage of time; the relationship between people are their environment; the joy and pain of love; the transformation of experience into art.
By 1996 Makhmalbaf's work had become morally and politically ambiguous enough that he was having trouble receiving clearance from the Iranian government to make his films. The origins of Gabbeh lie in a commission which the director received to make a documentary about a tribe of nomads in central Iran which was known for its traditional carpets, or "gabbehs." The government allowed Makhmalbaf to make the film, on the grounds that he couldn't cause much political trouble out in the boondocks, innocuously celebrating carpet-weavers. The finished film isn't a documentary in any conventional sense, although the actors are all members of the Ghashgha'i (the group in question) and Makhmalbaf captured (and staged) a good deal of footage of their travels, rituals, and occupations.
The central story, however, is more fantastic (in its gentle, understated way) than any sci-fi flick; the central characters are an old man and woman (Hossein and Rogheih Moharami) whom we first glimpse at a river, washing a gabbeh. The central figures on the rug are a man and woman on horseback, and soon the rug seems to transform itself into a young woman (Miss Gabbeh, played by Shagheyeh Djodat), who may be both the personification of the gabbeh and the younger version of the old woman. Miss Gabbeh then tells the story of her love for a horseman who often appears on the edges of her people's camp; her love is frustrated, however, as her father sets up a series of delays. She is not allowed to marry until her older uncle marries, and then until her mother gives birth to another child. This seems to be a sort of flashback, but Makhmalbaf's conception of time is radically non-linear; the older woman converses with the younger version of herself within the frame, and the old man talks to her as though no time had passed at all and he were still the young horseman, desperate for her to run away with him. The old woman, at one point, mourns for the long-ago death of her sister as if the grief were fresh (which, perhaps, it is). The exact physical status of Miss Gabbeh, too, remains something of a mystery: is she really there at the spring with the old couple? Is she, in fact, the personification of the rug? These "transformations," if that's what they are, are handled with simple edits; there are no "special effects." If one is on the movie's wavelength, this collapsing of time and personhood and the gap between the natural and human worlds can be both dizzying and profoundly moving. I'm getting a little misty-eyed right now, thinking of the scene in which the old man, in his strange quavery voice, literally howls at the moon with frustrated desire; he remains, indelibly, an old man, but has also become, in a way that makes nonsense of distinctions between the literal and figurative, both his younger self and a howling wolf. Beautiful.
Gabbeh was upbraided by some critics upon its release for being a sort of sanitized travelogue, a collection of pretty images that neglects the harsher truths of its subjects' existence. Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader complained that Makhmalbaf, in his desire to create a sort of rural timelessness, did not film the modern equipment and tools (pickup trucks, etc.) used by the Ghashgha'i. But criticizing Gabbeh for its lack of "realism" betrays a literal-mindedness that's rather disturbing in critics who are, after all, supposed to understand art: it's like saying that Michelangelo made muscles too big, or that Wallace Stevens wrote confusingly about life in suburban Connecticut, or that Blue Velvet inaccurately depicts the life of a teenage hardware store employee. For me, what make Gabbeh much more than a collection of pretty pictures are the editing and storytelling techniques discussed above, the poetic collapsing of ordinary distinctions, the richly suggestive editing whose primary motive is to weave (pun intended) together disparate elements rather than advancing the narrative.
As Godfrey Cheshire points out in his commentary, Gabbeh is also a more political film than its critics give it credit for; the mysterious, menacing father who keeps his daughter from marrying is a powerful critique of patriarchy, all the more distressing for being distant and motiveless yet ever-present. More centrally, the film's celebration of color (which is made very explicit in a wonderful scene in which the uncle, played by Abbas Sayah, teaches a group of schoolchildren about colors, using examples from nature) is a direct rebuke to the Iranian theocracy, which only allows women to wear a narrow and dull range of colors. The vibrant dress of these nomadic women, and the rallying cry that "life is color!" become, in this context, acts of defiance.
New Yorker's DVD goes a bit beyond their bare-bones presentation of Makhmalbaf's A Moment of Innocence and The Silence. The transfer is fine: colors are rich and solid (compare them to the unremastered trailer), but still I wonder what Criterion could do with a film like this (they've mostly avoided Iranian film, except for Kiarostami's A Taste of Cherry). Godfrey Cheshire's commentary track is also good: he's a great admirer of the film, and his enthusiasm is infectious. He's also spent some time in Iran, has talked with Makhmalbaf, and the background he provides on the film's origins and political context is very helpful. His booklet essay deals with many of the same themes, placing the film in the context of the Iranian fascination with poetry, and the highly influential filmmaking of the poet Forugh Farrokhzad, best known for her 1962 short The House Is Black.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf is a great and compassionate artist; his best films, of with Gabbeh is one, are warm, earthy and humane, and profound without a trace of pretentiousness or self-importance. I'd urge any film buff to check out the DVDs recently released by New Yorker (Gabbeh and A Moment of Innocence especially; you can save The Silence for later). You'll thank me for it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
• Audio Commentary by Critic Godfrey Cheshire
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