With his second feature, Gaav (The Cow, 1969), Dariush Merhjui established himself as the leading Iranian filmmaker, and Gaav became the first Iranian film to draw international attention. Mehrjui, born in 1939, had recently graduated from UCLA, where he had studied film before switching to philosophy. During his time overseas he became inspired by European films, particularly Italian and French films from the 1950s and 60s, and the seminal nature of Gaav spread this European influence to other Iranian filmmakers who followed.
Gaav is based on a story by Gholam-Hossein Saedi, which was first adapted as a TV play. Saedi, by the way, also authored the original story and co-scripted the brilliant Dayereh Mina (The Cycle, 1978), perhaps Mehrjui’s greatest film. The story of Gaav concerns a small, isolated village in the Iranian “desert” that has only a single cow. The owner of the cow, Hassan, has no children and obsessively devotes all his attention and affection to his cow, which is perhaps the basis for his importance in the community. One day while Hassan is attending to some affair in another village, the cow is found dead in its stall. The villagers are grief-stricken by the calamity, but their greatest concern is the effect that this will have on Hassan when he learns of it. So they conspire to tell a story to Hassan that the cow has run away and they are still looking for it. In the meantime they bury the cow in an abandoned village well.
When Hassan returns, he is stunned by the disappearance of the cow and quickly shows signs of withdrawal into a world of disbelief and madness. He doesn’t believe the far-fetched story that he is told about the cow running away, and he ultimately drifts into the state of believing that he, himself, is the cow. He retires to the stall and mournfully limits himself to eating hay and occasionally mooing like a cow. The villagers are nonplussed by the situation and try to come up with ways of bringing Hassan back to life. All of their efforts come to nothing, however, and they eventually decide that the only thing left for them to do is to harness him to a rope and drag him to a hospital in a larger city. The arduous task of dragging the bound-up Hassan across the barren landscape during a rainstorm (one of the most memorable scenes in the film) leads the leader of the group, Eslam, in frustration, to whip Hassan like a pack animal. Hassan’s destruction as a man is complete. The subsequent events, when Hassan breaks away from his captors and falls down a steep slope and dies, seem inevitable.
Like two other Mehrjui films that I have reviewed, Ali Santouri and Hamoun, the narrative line in Gaav is downhill all the way. Hassan and the village plunge into a downward spiral that ends in despair. This sense of fatalism and tragedy is a thematic current in Persian culture that extends far beyond Mehrjui, incidentally, and one might even say that it represents a characteristic feature of the Iranian psyche. This is not necessarily a negative turn of mind, though, but more of a deep awareness of the essential transitory nature of existence. But what then is the overall intent of the authors of Gaav, what does it mean? The Shah of Iran’s government, though they supplied financing of the film, banned its release. The government perhaps feared some latent political message in the story, since Saeedi was a socialist and political opponent of the regime. We know also that Khomeini subsequently praised the film (and this praise is said to have saved the Iranian film industry from shutdown after the revolution). What did he see in it? Was there a political message in the film?
I think there was something of a social meaning, but not something specifically political. The villagers in the film are haunted by fear and their own ignorance. There was fear of the “evil eye” and fear of the threatening nearby, but mysterious, “heathen” village, Balour. The village children love to torment a retarded teenager, simply because this harmless person is strange and different. The women of the village are superstitious and driven by their own rituals. When the village leaders get together to discuss what they should do, they are constantly uncertain and fatalistic about what may happen next. The person that they rely on most, Eslam, is certainly the most resourceful, but he, himself, is hesitant to take action and is constantly riven with uncertainty and doubt. To my mind, this film describes the bleak and barren cultural landscape of Iranian village life. It is the reverse of those romantic descriptions of bucolic life in the countryside that one sometimes encounters. This film, in contrast, strikes me as more of a rejection of that life, and perhaps that’s not surprising, coming from the socialist Saeedi, who would perhaps see things from a more modernist perspective. The village life is shown to be so dysfunctional that when a critical event occurs in this village, i.e. the cow dies, Hassan goes mad, and the rest of the village cannot cope with it, either.
Some critics have likened Gaav to Italian Neorealistic films, but aside from the fact that the film was shot in a village, this comparison is not particularly apt. Italian Neorealism attempted to capture the real-world experiences of the working class by eschewing standard film conventions, including professional lighting and actors. Gaav uses top Iranian professional stage actors (who perform extremely well), and many of the events are artificially staged. For example, there are repeated scenes of three mysterious, threatening Balouri strangers seen standing on a ridge in the distance, and this evocative image is representative of the “unknown” that perpetually threatens the village.
Mehrjui's mise en scene in Gaav is superb and sets a standard for Iranian films. The film is shot in black-and-white, and Merhjui is not afraid to use darkness and shadows to great effect. In video reprints of the film, unfortunately, the shadowy elements are completely lost in blackness, due to the limited contrast range of video. But this is presumably more visible on the original film stock, and not the fault of Mehrjui. Throughout the film, Mehrjui skilfully uses space and creates a moody contextual ambience from the numerous shots of watching villagers who are witnessing the drama of Hassan. There are sometimes closeups of peering faces and other times point-of-view shots of enfolding events from various perspectives, all of which maintain the circumspective compass of the action. The story is told not so much by dialogue (some sequences have only limited dialogue), but by the deliberate pacing of village activity. This sets a tone that blends well with the atmospheric flute music of the soundtrack. Overall, the story, though deliberate paced, does move along and capture the imagination. Gaav, by the way, is vastly superior to the overpraised Tabiate Bijan (Still Life, 1974), which made monotonous emptiness of peasants not only its single point, but subjected the viewer to the same infuriatingly monotonous experience, with virtually no progression.
After the Shah’s government banned the film, a copy of the film was smuggled out of the country and shown at the Venice film festival, where it won prizes and also a prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. The government eventually relented, and the film became very popular and a source of pride to the Iranian people. It remains a landmark in Iranian film history.