Recently, as I watched one of the first great Iranian films, The Cow, which came out in 1969, I thought about this passage from Godfrey Cheshire’s summary of the Iranian New Wave in a 1993 Film Comment article, talking about Close-Up (which I reviewed in an earlier post and which is possibly the best-known Iranian film of the past 30 years):
Here, after all, is a turbaned Iranian judge listening to impassioned arguments about the practice and value of cinema… . This is not the fearsome, dark-ages Iran of the 6 o’clock news, clearly. It is something far more complex, media-savvy, and oddly sophisticated, if be-turbaned still.
Cheshire spends the rest of the article talking about that sophistication and the subtlety of Iranian films, but the message I take from this passage is that anything “oddly sophisticated” coming out of anybody with a turban is a small miracle in itself. I kind of felt the same way, to be honest, but, at the same time, I think my surprise at finding out I was wrong is the oddest thing, not the sophistication that it turns out Iranian culture could exhibit. Look, I have prejudices and biases, but when they’re proven wrong, I hope my reaction wouldn’t be to take them as logical or any counter-evidence as paradoxical. It’s not really a surprise when other cultures, even ones with strong conservative political or cultural strains, produce amazing cinema.
I mention this because I came to The Cow assuming that it wouldn’t be very good, probably because it was made in 1969 by some Iranians and I’ve never heard of it before. Is that dumb of me? I don’t know, but I’m not going to pretend that assumption made a ton of sense, and in fact, I was plainly wrong. Take the camerawork, story, or acting — none of it is simple or uninventive, and overall I think this stands up as a work that feels like a great art experience.
On paper, the plot doesn’t sound very promising: Hassan owns the only cow in a small town, and loves it heartily. The cow dies, and the other villagers try to avoid telling Hassan, but eventually he figures it out, and his reaction is … poor. Part of the brilliance of the movie is Hassan’s innocent joy in the cow while it’s alive and his total, probably disproportionate despondency with its death: You can see that the cow was his hope, joy and purpose, and in taking it away from him, the story is about what happens when we lose these entirely. Also, to no small degree, it’s about what our reaction to that loss does to everyone around us.
All of this would have fallen flat, I think, if the performances weren’t great, but Ezzatolah Entezami, playing Hassan, conveys the joy and the madness without restraint, and the unlikely connection between existentialism and the cow comes through on a visceral level.
Anyway, I’m not going to do the movie justice here, since there are too many good performances and worthwhile ideas to summarize it in a post. I just want to make an abbreviated case for why The Cow ought to stand with many of the best movies, and not relegated to some second tier of films that are only notable because they overcome the (specious) handicap of coming from a culture of turbans.
Maybe I’ll just describe one of the most psychologically effective parts of the film, namely the Boulouris, a group that threatens to pillage Hassan’s village and who are often spoken of as though they were a force of nature. Kevin Wilson, who makes a lot of the points about The Cow that I had hoped were original with me, explains it like this:
The threat to the village from the Boulouris could be real or imagined. [Director Dariush] Mehrjui leaves it largely to our imagination through the ominous appearances of them upon the hills overlooking the village and the dazzling night sequences where the two villages seem to raid each other.
Importantly, these Boulouris are never shown in close-up. They appear for the first time on the horizon, as silhouettes:
Later, when they raid the town at night, shadows always obscure their features. At the end of the movie, at a moment when the other villagers are at their breaking point with Hassan, they become silhouettes themselves, much like the Boulouris:
A second later, the Boulouris finally turn to leave, as though they are fading back into the mists where they came from. It’s as if they can relent now, having seen how low the villagers have been brought, not by their malicious interventions, but by the villagers’ own lack of emotional fortitude.
Besides for being really good, The Cow was also not as alien to me in the way I expected. You would think that time, language, and culture would be the markers that distance me from the town of the film. But no, what really separates the film’s reality from mine is the breach between the agrarian, rural world of Hassan’s village and my own urban professional existence. (I live in Boston and type for a living, basically.) That is to say, it’s not so much culture as economy and class that divides me from it: The experience of these townspeople reminds me more of Lars and the Real Girl — an American movie from 2007 — than Close-Up, an Iranian film from 1990.
There is, for instance, the cow itself, which would strike your average urbanite as almost exotic. I haven’t seen one up close in years, and probably haven’t touched one since a field trip in grade school. But for Hassan, the titular cow is something between the family dog and the goose that lays golden eggs. So it’s not so surprising that dude loves his bovine, probably as much as you’d love your kitty cat if, in addition to being diabolically cute, it coughed up hair balls of sterling silver. [Image redacted.]
One of the other ways that The Cow feels like a foreign story, but not a particularly Iranian one, is its small town life. I grew up in a town of 2,000, but this was in New Jersey in the 90s, and it was largely a bedroom community just miles from other bedroom communities that mostly blended into one another. Nowadays, I live in a very dense city and even if I say hello to the neighbors, for most purposes you could replace me with most any other well-meaning liberal yuppie and they wouldn’t really know the difference. Or, more to the point, they probably wouldn’t care.
The links between people in Hassan’s town, on the other hand, transcend vague platitudes about community and show how closely connected the people are, for better or worse. The death of Hassan’s cow is felt throughout town, economically and emotionally, since each person there contributes significantly to the whole psychic atmosphere of the village unit. The cow’s death could never have been Hassan’s grief alone, and what’s great about The Cow‘s performances is that his neighbors’ alternating sympathy and frustration with Hassan is obvious, and felt.
None of this feels native to my own experience, but it’s not hard to imagine setting this movie in the U.S., if not 40 years ago, then earlier, but still here. Either way, it feels foreign, but not because of American culture being different than Iranian culture, but because modern, urban, professional-class America can feel very different from the rural working-class America of decades ago. And that only gets back to the point that people, with turbans or cowboy hats or fedoras or head-scarves, can make excellent art, pretty much no matter where they live.