September 27, 2018
Gabbeh – Iran, 1996
Gabbeh: “a hand-woven pile rug of course quality and medium size or characterized by an abstract design that relies upon open fields of color and a playfulness with geometry” (Wikipedia)
One of the keys to understanding Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh occurs early on the film when we see a young woman (Shaghayeh Djodat) standing outside a makeshift home somewhere in the Iranian countryside. On her door is a gabbeh, dyed mostly blue to resemble water and topped by the figures of a man and a woman on the back of a white horse. The camera cuts away for a moment, and when we return, it is an older woman who now stands in front of the camera in the same traditional blue tunic, now a little more faded due to the passage of time. We are, in my opinion, looking at the same woman years later (I admit there are problems with this interpretation). This is important, yet I believe the most pivotal part of the scene is her smile. It is as if Makhmalbaf is telling us that, despite the situations we see unfold as the film progresses, hers is a happy story, one that, while not having all of the elements of one of those western fairy tales, is about a woman who got her Prince Charming and is still glad that she did.
I mention this because it is not always apparent that the life she has is a joyful one. Her husband is now much older and possibly a little senile. Their years together have not produced wealth or even a middle-class lifestyle. There is also a suggestion that the two of them have remained childless, one of the aspects of their life that sets them apart from the families we see in flashbacks. Their home is miniscule, and an early discussion hints that they have only one pair of boots between them. Still, there is tenderness there, a connection forged through a lifetime of shared experiences, many of which were obviously extremely trying.
Yet to completely call this a love story would be misleading. It is a tale about waiting, about a love that is worth waiting for, and ultimately about the costs that can come with pursuing a love that is forbidden – and even that description trivializes the film. It is also about mankind’s symbiotic relationship with both colors and animals, and how these relationships shape the way we see and relate to the world around us, as well as the fragility of memory and the objects we create to preserve our memories. It is a poetic vision of life and love, one in which characters transcend space and time, in which a character can reach into a picturesque landscape that is physically quite a distance away and pull out a bouquet of flowers. In this motif, we are presented with the notion of time and space being flexible and ever-present, and characters seem alternatively stuck in time and free to interact with their former selves. In other words, Gabbeh is a complicated thing of beauty, a combination of fantasy, tragedy, caution, and romance, a film which expresses itself in lyrical prose rather than direct and clear exposition.
On the surface, the film can be summed up quite easily: An elderly couple (Hossein Moharami and Roghieh Moharami) reminiscences about how they eventually eloped. There is nothing particularly impressive or novel about that description; however, Makhmalbaf spins his tale so uniquely that what could have been everyday becomes rich and meaningful. In fact, we see very little of the woman’s love interest. He is always afar, howling for her to come to him. (I mean that literally.) Instead, the film presents the clash of modernity and traditionalism, as well as that of romance and practicality. The woman cannot just marry the man of her dreams; she must respect long-standing views on the natural order of things. For example, according to her father, she cannot get married until after her uncle does. In the film, the uncle (Abbas Sayyahi) represents both the fantastic and the modern. He dresses in modern clothing and has rather improbably notions of Ms. Right. However, even after the uncle ties the knot, life sees fit to delay young love over and over.
As the film unfolded, I found myself caught up in it. The way the experiences of humans intertwined with those of animals, the connection between color and emotions, and the use of gabbehs as records of both triumph and pain. At one point, the laying of an egg foreshadows the birth of a child, and both are presented as being natural and automatic. I also found it fascinating that the gabbeh is used to record factual moments, as well as fictional ones, especially when the fictional account is preferred. And then there’s the film’s frequent use of wolves. I was reminded that while a wolf’s cry may convey a level of longing, following it can also lead you to danger.
I don’t pretend to understand every aspect of the film, and there were times when the interaction between characters seemed intentionally opaque, as if the characters were avoiding clarity just for the sake of creating additional mystery for the audience. However, by the end of the movie, all of my misgivings had washed away, and I was overcome by the sheer power of what had transpired in front of me. Here is a film that is both conventional and ground-breaking, that will make you smile and then fill you with sorrow. It is a film that will undoubtedly divide some viewers, with some seeing it as a tragedy and others seeing it as love story with a truly happy ending. I myself was a bit conflicted. In my notes, I wrote the following: “Life is hard and reality is not so romantic. There’s a yearning for the past, for other than what you’ve become.” I felt that, and then came the smile again, that smile that seemed to suggest no regrets for a youth defined by one impetuous decision. It suddenly occurred to me that these two feelings are not mutually exclusive. What Makhmalbaf seems to be saying is that life is not a fairy tale. We don’t always get the castle, the money, or the desired simplicity. This does not mean we cannot have our happily-ever-after, though. (on Blu-ray as part of Mohsen Makhmalbaf: The Poetic Trilogy)
3 and a half stars
*Gabbeh is in Persian with English subtitles.