Close-Up on Dariush Mehrjui’s "The Cow"

With a stunningly varied style and an ambiguous rural allegory, Dariush Mehrjui's landmark film opened up new paths for Iranian cinema.
Lawrence Garcia
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Dariush Mehrjui's The Cow is exclusively showing January 8 – February 6, 2020 in MUBI's Rediscovered series.
The Cow
The silhouette of a four-legged creature emerges over an indistinct horizon. As it moves, it splits apart and merges together a few more times, revealing itself to be a man and his cow.
This sequence, presented in a series of black-and-white negative images, comes at the start of Dariush Mehrjui’s pre-Iranian Revolution landmark The Cow—the story of a man whose beloved beast dies suddenly, and who subsequently goes insane, imagining himself to have become a cow. (And not just any cow—his cow.) An adaptation of “Gav,” by writer and playwright Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi, it’s a film of unstable, amorphous identity, for which that suggestive overture soon becomes emblematic. But given its ever-shifting borders, this portentous, almost phantasmic image also carries a different, if more banal sort of implication, pointing up to the problems endemic to narrativizing any cinematic movement—in this case the Iranian New Wave, of which this film is considered a pioneering work—amidst problems of state censorship and limited theatrical distribution. Mehrjui’s films have remained largely unseen in the United States, and even upon its completion in 1969, The Cow was denied an export permit. Despite the fact that the film was funded by the Ministry of Culture and Arts, the Pahlavi regime preferred not to have the film’s portrayal of rural Iranian village life color the nation’s desired image of modernity on the world stage. Nonetheless, in 1971 The Cow was smuggled out of Iran and played at both the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes and the Venice Film Festival (where it took home the FIPRESCI Prize) and has since maintained a steady, if still limited level of acclaim.
“Seek out the reality inherent in your culture in your society,” Mehrjui advised filmmakers while speaking of The Cow. “The deeper you go into that, the more universal it will be.” While not without its wisdom, that statement also speaks—however inadvertently—to an unfortunate critical tendency to, well, “universalize,” to paint various, distinct cultural movements with too broad a “humanist” brush, at the expense of both historical specificity, and those films and filmmakers that might not conform to (primarily Western) cinematic conceptions or traditions. Like Satyajit Ray, whose reception might be considered an illustrative case, Mehrjui came in contact with French luminary Jean Renoir (whom he studied under at UCLA), and has also spoken of Italian neorealism as a formative cinematic encounter. A neorealist approach, though, is far from Mehrjui’s default procedure—his 1966 debut Diamond 33, which had an unusually high budget due to the pomp of a U.S.-trained filmmaker returning to Iran, is a parody of James Bond tropes—and even in the case of The Cow, the designation is already somewhat limiting, as the film cycles through an impressive range of effects. Following the opening credits, a silent succession of faces, reaction shots, and measured movements—not unlike those presented at the end of Jia Zhang-ke’s Xiao Wu (1997)gradually builds to a loud eruption of activity, all centered on the ritual humiliation of Mash Saffar’s son, the village madman, by a group of youngsters. Later, in a much-celebrated sequence, the story’s principal character Mash Hassan (Ezzatolah Entezami) washes his cow with an affection that rides the line between sincerity and outright caricature. But Mehrjui soon follows the lolling, lyrical ease of the sequence with a threatening wide shot of three Bolouris (bandits from a neighboring area) against the horizon, framed as if the antagonists of a western—and so the film unfolds in part as an assault on the impoverished village. (The image will be repeated once more towards the end of the film, presaging Hassan’s eventual fate.) Such startling shifts epitomize Mehrjui’s overall approach and the often arresting, jarring result. Developing the threat of the Bolouris even further, the Iranian director employs a number of horror effects during the nighttime scenes, maximizing negative compositional space, and cloaking the intruders in darkness as they sneak through the village with the goal of stealing the cow, their movements accompanied by discordant strains of Hormoz Farhat’s score. 
Essential to The Cow is its portrait of a rural community: Led by Mash Islam (Ali Nassirian), the villagers bury the cow and conspire to tell Hassan that it merely ran away, a plan predicated on collective silence, which one haughty villager observes might easily be broken by a stray pronouncement from Mash Saffar’s son. The matter of why the villagers attempt to divert Hassan in this way—despite the attendant logistical strain, the lack of apparent benefit to themselves, and the ultimate futility of the task—is not one the film concerns itself with. Indeed, The Cow gives the impression that even if the inciting event were somewhat different, its narrative trajectory and preoccupations might be largely unchanged. (That said, it’s certainly significant that Hassan and his wife have no children, and that the cow is pregnant, as childlessness is the dramatic linchpin of Mehrjui’s 1996 domestic drama Leila, his first film to get distribution in the U.S.
What the film does take up vigorously is the question of transformation: “How does a man turn into a cow?” asks a student during a classroom discussion of Sa’edi’s story in Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (2016), a scene that speaks to the story’s place in Iranian culture. A typical angle of approach would be to take this dilemma as metaphoric, but it’s to the script’s credit that Hassan’s psychological metamorphosis is not so easily abstracted: the unsettling image of Hassan chewing grass, like a kind of exiled Nebuchadnezzar, is inseparable from other dramas that emerge over the course of the film. His psychosis may be the film’s core question, but it’s far from the only one. It’s significant, after all, that Hassan’s apparent insanity is interwoven with not just the threat of the Bolouris, the aforementioned subject of childlessness, and the fact that the cow is the only livestock in the entire village, but also a tentative courtship between two young villagers, which culminates in the wedding ceremony that closes the film. Likewise, there’s a pointed (a)symmetry in the jester-like laughter that Saffar’s son evokes in the villagers, and the fear evoked by Hassam’s inexplicable, debased state: despite its sadistic suggestion, one presents a sense of joy and renewal, the other a dreaded disruption of an accepted order.  
All of this is to say that The Cow not so easily whittles down to an underlying moral—this despite its ostensible parable-like trajectory, which eventually ends with Hassam being taken to the city and committing suicide along the way. Although film has any number of compelling stylistic flourishes, it doesn’t seem right to talk of its elegance, as its movements are often jerky and jangling, punctuated by visual extremes of light and dark, depthless inky night and blinding, cloudless day; tracking shots that move in and out of focus, not always fluidly; and sundry shifts between aural stillness and cacophonous activity. More than a mellifluous flow, the film lingers in the mind as a collection of intrusions and interruptions: images of hands emerging comically out of darkened windows to serve afternoon tea; a group of village elders peering pensively into a barn window, crammed into a symmetric, planimetric frame within a frame; the wrinkled faces of the elderly women (presumably non-actors) who carry out a ritual mourning, and then later prepare for the celebratory wedding rites. There’s a tactility to such images, to say nothing of the unexpectedly open narrative that contains it, all creating the distinct impression of a filmmaker exploring a set of expressive, expansive possibilities.
In a certain sense, then, The Cow might seem a strange start for a filmmaking wave—too disjunctive, too tenuously assembled to impress as a cohesive vision. But then again, perhaps its formal multiplicity accounts for its enduring stature, and that, rather than embody an aesthetic, the film instead points to a set of divergent, possibly contradictory paths of exploration. (The film reportedly led the Ayatollah Khomeini to support the continuance of Iran’s cinema following the revolution.) The closing image is of a woman looking out at the horizon at… something. The angle of her figure suggests undiluted anticipation, and one might even wonder whether or not she is seeing the ghostly figures we saw at the film’s start. But for a moment, the piercing expectation of the image is such that the answer no longer matters.

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