Mysteries abound in Dariush Mehrjui's savagely funny and terrifying 1969 film Gaav (The Cow). I suppose that there are experts in the anthropology of Iranian villages that can explain some of the film's enigmas; perhaps, students of Iranian politics can decipher parts of the film as allegory or satire. Maybe, someone has written a learned treatise on Mehrjui's films complete with an explanation of the intent and context animating Gaav. But these things are unknown to me, as was the name Mehrjui, and it is a one of the great pleasures in cinema to discover a fully realized, exotic masterpiece and wonder at the context from which it arises.
Gaav might be derived from one of Kafka's fables and seems as rich in veiled meaning as one of those stories. A man named Hassan lives in a tiny, remote village in a featureless desert. The man owns a cow upon which he lavishes all of his affection. We see him bathing with his shapely cow in a slimy-looking watering hole, vigorously ladling water onto the beast as he coos and moos to her. The cow isn't naked -- she wears a garland between her horns and, later, Hassan bring her an amulet to ward off the Evil Eye. Although regarded as eccentric by the townsfolk, Hassan is a leading man because he owns the village's one and only cow. He is no less uxorious with his cow in her stable -- there we see him feeding the animal, lovingly sharing some of her fodder, and, then, bedding down with her on the straw. The town is under constant attack by sinister enemies, the Balouris. Mehrjiu shows them in small groups brooding over the desert from distant hilltops. The Balouris are reputedly thieves and when these brigands are raiding, Hassan sleeps in the barn with his cow to protect it against these enemies.
For some reason, Hassan leaves the village. He is gone for a couple of days and, during his absence, his cow dies inexplicably. (The sorcery of the Balouris is suspected). Everyone in the town agrees that Hassan can not be told that his cow had died and, so, a story is concocted that the cow has run away. In fact, the villagers are all complicit in the deceit -- in a startling scene, they drag the cow across the village square and drop the dead beast into a dry well. Hassan comes home and no one dares tell him that his cow is dead. Even his wife, upon whom the villagers have relied to tell the true story, can't bring herself to advise Hassan as to the bad news. Hassan goes to his barn and hallucinates that the cow is still in her stall. Then, he climbs up onto a rooftop, anxiously scanning the completely featureless horizon for signs of Balouris raiders. When the town's "chief" and other leading men approach Hassan he says that he defending the cow from theft. A little later, the men talk with Hassan in the stall. By this point, Hassan is eating grass and hay and speaking in a different voice -- he declares that he is the cow and that his master, Hassan, is sitting on the rooftop defending his stable against the Balouris who want to steal him and "cut off my head." The town's leaders conclude that the lie has gone too far and they try to tell Hassan the truth, but he has become his cow and he won't listen to them -- instead, he butts his head against the crumbling walls of the stable. In the night, the Balouris raid the town and, even, enter Hassan's stable -- but instead of the cow, they find the gaunt and insane Hassan sleeping in the hay. There is a skirmish and Balouris flee. After a couple days, the village elders decide that Hassan, who is starving to death (he has eaten a whole wagonload of straw), must be committed to a mental hospital in "the City." They tie him up and lead him from the village in a great thunderstorm. Hassan, who has now become a cow, balks and one of the leading men beats him with a rope crying out: "Move, you animal, Move!" Hassan runs amuck and tumbling down a rocky slope, is knocked unconscious and drowns in the mud. The Balouris have been watching this spectacle from an adjacent sand dune. Mehrjiu's camera frames the three men forlornly looking down at Hassan's corpse in a way that emphasizes that they look exactly identical to the three sinister Balouri on the nearby knoll. The head man goes back to the village to get a donkey cart to transport Hassan's corpse. Madness now purged from their village, one of the town's girls prepares for her wedding -- this wedding had to be delayed as a result of Hassan's insanity, a taint attaching collectively to all the villages. In the final shot, we see the bride-to-be standing vigilantly upon a rooftop -- she is arrayed in her bridal finery but, also, it seems acting as a sentinel against the ever-encroaching Balouris, an enemy that we now understand to be identical with the villagers.
This plot may seem unlikely but it is presented with grave assurance. Mehrjiu films everything in huge close-ups with high contract between the glaring desert light and the deep shadows engendered by that light. The entire picture is an exercise in unearthly chiaroscuro. The town has no electricity and when night falls everything is pitch black except for a stark white geometry of stucco roof and walls that Mehrjiu has illumined -- shadowy faces peer from inky niches and tiny windows and people squat in rooftop cavities. The raiding Balouris are fleeting shadows cast across the pale mud walls, spectral intruders -- the night shots, in particular, featuring the eerie moonscape of the mud-walled village, look like something out of Murnau's Nosferatu; we are forcefully reminded that the world without electric lights was a scary place after dark. The village's uncanny geometry of low walls and mysterious alcoves contrasts with the warmth of the stable where Mehrjiu rim-lights the big handsome cow as if she were Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo. The burial of the cow in the disused well is a bravura passage of film making -- it is shot to emphasize the collective activity of the villages and the slow-motion images of the dead cow slowly settling down into the pit are very beautiful. The film's poetic treatment of the villager's collective responses to their plight derives from Soviet films, particularly Dovhenko's Earth and Arsenal -- indeed, the shape of the film and its treatment of the villagers as well as the design of Mehrjiu's editing all seem to invoke the Russian filmmaker's masterpiece, Earth, although I can also detect some influence of Sergei Paradjanov's films, most particularly Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. Mehrjiu's insists that the villagers fate is collective and they appear as a choral presence, delineated to some degree but always acting in concert -- the effect is similar to the treatment of the villagers in Dovhenko's masterpiece, Earth, the figure of the cow serving as the destabilizing narrative engine just as the tractor drives the action in the Russian film.
Mehrjiu's film doesn't suggest that the villagers inhabit some kind of bucolic paradise. Indeed, to the contrary, the movie seems to suggest from the outset that there is something terribly wrong with the village -- thus the village's descent into what seems like some form of collective madness feels warranted. The movie begins with an unsettling sequence: a sleazy thug wearing an army fatigue cap, Esmayil, tortures the village idiot -- he paints the poor retarded kid's face with some nasty pigment, attaches jugs and bottles to his ankles and, then, leading the village children, pursues the retarded man about the town's central well, a big swimming-pool-shaped body of dirty water. Everyone seems to enjoy beating the retarded man. The film's penultimate sequence also involves Esmayil tying a can to the village idiot's ankle and chasing down some steps -- the retarded boy takes a hard fall. Why does everyone in the village instantly acquiesce in the scheme to mislead Hassan? The first thing these villagers can agree upon is the need to lie to Hassan -- and this collective decision is made without any dissent, presumably based upon the idea that Hassan's neglected wife will tell the man the truth. (She doesn't). By lying, the villagers have falsified their own reality and it's not easy to extricate themselves from the affliction that they have unleashed -- the hamlet seems cursed with barrenness so long as the lie about the cow remains in force: no one can marry. Indeed, the lie that the villagers tell (and in which they persist) seems to underwrite and warrant Hassan's madness. If reality no longer exists in the village nothing keeps him from becoming his beloved cow? Everything is false, lies have canceled ordinary reality, and the truth fades into the shadowy darkness. But the motivation for lying to Hassan is unclear and, it seems, an element of the village's criminality -- at one point, Mehrjiu suggests that the villagers subsist by thieving from their neighbors and, in effect, are just like the Balouri that they revile. Furthermore, Mehrjiu also makes the point that the real power in the village doesn't lie with the feckless "chief" and his sidekick Esme who makes all the chief's decisions for him, but rather with a sinister coven of old hags. From time to time, we see a group of elderly widows, shot as if they were living dead (their eyes are black cavities in their skulls) parading through the town. The women have some sort of secret society in which the true authority to rule the village is vested. We see them convening in a subterranean catacomb, a buried church in which they store their bizarre regalia -- these are brocaded pennants on poles ending in silver hands. The hands look like the effigies used by gypsies for reading palms and suggest that women are, perhaps, prophetic. In their secret rites, the women open an altar to disclose a painted figure on horseback, something like St. George the Dragon Slayer -- it seems that they are, perhaps, Coptic Christians. The fact that the women's secret society controls the town is suggested by two very peculiar scenes. In the first, the indolent town elders sit on a stucco shelf carved into one of the houses and gossip while one of the men plays a kind of lute. The shelf bench is conveniently equipped with a little window through which a female hand sometimes reaches to give the men their ration of afternoon tea. But, from time to time, smoke gushes forth through the tiny window and chokes the men seated on the bench -- it is as if the female presence in the house intentionally harasses the useless town council and drives them away from their comfortable perch. Later, in the film we see that the old women are crawling over gravestones inset in a desolate cemetery while the men recline against a low wall ignoring them -- the women are keening in an unearthly way and, dressed all in black, they look like huge tarantulas. It is these women who try to break the curse on the village by sprinkling some kind of holy water on the men and, at one point, they lead a march into the darkness of the desert, waving their banners at the black sky. The film's final image supports the notion that the town is fundamentally one controlled by female powers: granted the right to marry because Hassan is now dead, the bride stands atop a house, frozen in a stance of vigilance: she is affirming her power as a married woman but also guarding the town against its enemies.
The Ayatollah Khomeini was said to greatly admire Gaav and, in fact, he allowed the film industry in Tehran to flourish because of his admiration for this picture. I'm not sure what this means but I do have a sense that the villagers in the movie are not exactly good Muslims. Indeed, I think that they may be some kind of heretics or, perhaps, Yazidis (who are worshipers of Satan in his incarnation as a bright, Promethean Lucifer) or, even, Zoroastrians -- as I have earlier noted, the icon suggests some kind of relationship with Coptic Christianity. In this aspect the film is similar to another excellent picture very obviously influenced by The Cow, Abbas Kiastoami's The Wind will Carry Us. In that picture, a group of documentary film makers from a Tehran TV station travel to a remote Kurdish village -- so far from the city that their cell-phones don't work. The plan is to capture on film certain unique mortuary rites. But this project requires a death and the ancient woman who's sickness promises an opportunity to record her funeral rites obstinately refuses to die. It's clear that the villagers in Kiastoami's film are not orthodox Muslims and this seems to be the case in The Cow as well. Kiastoami's film is about many things, but one of its themes is the confrontation between Persia's ancient folkways and its modern cities. There is no such contrast in Mehrjiu's film -- the village in The Cow seems wholly prehistoric; it's like one of those places inhabited from before the Neolithic, an immemorially ancient place. It's worth noting as well that the spectacular passage in this film in which Hassan is bound and dragged out of town in a dramatic thunderstorm appears in TV in the 2016 Iranian film, The Salesman. The Walker Art Center showed this picture as part of a festival of films imported from countries on Donald Trump's infamous Muslim travel ban. Accordingly, the movie was accompanied by a short from the Sudan that was okay, but superfluous. The Cow is sufficiently impressive, complex, and challenging to give its audience more than enough to digest. Unfortunately the film was shown in a DVD version probably more or less adequate for home viewing on TV but blurry when blown up to theater (35 millimeter) size. The subtitles were the old white ones that are often invisible, particularly in a film shot in high contrast black and white. Most problematic was the fact that the movie was screened with its soundtrack turned up to an intolerable volume -- the picture was more deafening than Michael Bay's Transformers. In one scene in which a woman sees Balouris running through the dark village and screams, her amplified shriek was more than people could bear -- it just about knocked me out of my seat and caused nearby spectators to moan and grab at their ears. Notwithstanding these deficits, the majesty of the film's concept and direction remained, more or less, legible and there is no doubt in my mind that The Cow is a masterpiece of world cinema. My appreciation of the film was not aided by the Trump bashing that proceeded the screening. The Walker Art Center has revealed itself to be managed by craven hypocrites who favor censorship -- this was the message ineluctably delivered by the museum's decision to knuckle-under to Native American pressure to dismantle and destroy an art work about which the tribes had not been previously consulted and had not given their approval. (I don't recall the Catholic church being asked to weigh-in as to the imagery in an exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe's pictures.) The only time I have any sympathy for the swinish, inept Donald Trump is when he is being attacked by "tough talking" film curators at the WAC.