Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 25, 2020

Dariush Mehrjui’s “The Cow”, the film that launched the Iranian New Wave

Filed under: Film,Iran — louisproyect @ 7:20 pm

About a month ago, Shalon Van Tine, the young and brilliant Marxist film critic that joined me in an interview by Eric Draitser, messaged me on FB: “I had a lot of fun talking to you on the podcast today! Since you like Iranian cinema, have you ever seen The Cow? I absolutely love that one.” I messaged her back: “Never saw ‘The Cow’ but am familiar with its importance. Loved doing the show with you, btw. Our tastes are very similar.”

About a week ago, I decided to see if the film was available as VOD. Not only was it available, it was just one of a vast library of Iranian films, many with subtitles like “The Cow”, that are archived on the IMVBox website. It is entirely free without subtitles and only $2.49 with. There are 323 films with English subtitles, including “The Cow”. For anybody with the least bit of interest in one of the world’s great filmmaking industries, IMVBox is indispensable.

Made in 1969, “The Cow” (Gaav, in Persian) was like the ship that launched a thousand new wave films in Iran. Well, maybe not a thousand but certainly a hundred. Directed by Dariush Mehrjui and based on a screenplay by his good friend Gholam-Hossein Saedi, it is set in an impoverished farming town in southern Iran. It is so poor that Masht Hassan (Ezzatolah Entezami) is considered wealthy because he owns just one cow. It is not even clear if the cow is productive in the conventional sense because we never see Hassan milking her. She is much more of a pet that he dotes on. When he feeds her hay in the barn (more of a shed, really), he always puts some straw in his mouth to encourage her. It is almost as if he is worshipping the cow like a Hindu.

Perhaps, Mehrjui had the films of Satyajit Ray in the back of his mind since “The Cow” evokes the Apu Trilogy. As is the case with Ray, Mehrjui refuses to idealize rural life. At the start of the film, we see children hazing the village idiot with none of the elders chiding them. It is only when the most respected of them, a man named Islam, steps in that they back off.

When Hassan goes off for some business in a nearby town for a couple of days, the villagers are shocked to see in his absence that the cow has died unexpectedly, with a pool of blood close to her mouth. Dreading the impact this would have on him, they bury her and agree on telling him a story about her running off when he returns. No matter how many of them reassure him that this is what took place, he simply refuses to believe them. She had no reason to run off, he insists. Like someone in mourning, he retreats to the barn and sits inconsolably next to her stall. After a day or so, he snaps psychologically and assumes her identity, even to the point of consuming straw this time for real. It is up to Islam and two other villagers to seek help for him. They tie a rope around his waist, as if he were a farm animal, and begin on a long trek to the closest city where they hope to find a mental hospital to take him in.

I should add that although Mehrjui is often viewed as a disciple of Satyajit Ray or the Italian neo-realists, there is one scene toward the end of the film that reminds me of the very end of Ingmar Bergman’s “Seventh Seal”, at least visually. It is a long shot of the three villagers hauling Hassan by a rope toward the city, like Death leading Bergman’s characters off in the distance in a macabre dance. Bergman is on top, Mehrjul below:

Although funded by the Shah’s film company, he refused to allow it to be seen abroad since it went against the grain of his “modernization” posturing. After the Shah was overthrown, Ayatollah Khomeini gave the film his blessing, thus allowing this first seed of the new wave to grown into many new flowers.

If you are familiar with the work of either Abbas Kiarostami or Jafar Panahi, you will recognize the similarity immediately. Like Mehrjui, they made films on location in remote rural villages with nonprofessional actors. However, for key roles such as Hassan and Islam, Mehrjui chose professionals with distinguished careers. Ezzatolah Entezami, who played Hassan, would have had 56 credits as an actor when he died in 2018 at the age of 94. “The Cow” might have been in his first film but he began as a stage actor in 1941.

In addition to being tuned into Western culture as director and writer, Mehrjui and Saedi were the Iranian counterparts of the 60s radical movement, with hopes that they could put an end to the monarchy alongside the political radicals.

As for Western culture, Mehrjui was less than impressed with the UCLA film school where he enrolled back in 1959. He dropped out and began learning how to make films on his own. His take on UCLA was most astute: “They wouldn’t teach you anything very significant… because the teachers were the kind of people who had not been able to make it in Hollywood themselves… [and would] bring the rotten atmosphere of Hollywood to the class and impose it on us.”

Like many of the movement activists, Mehrjui initially welcomed the “anti-imperialist” Ayatollah Khomeini, who was much more supportive of “The Cow” than the deposed monarch. It didn’t take him long to figure out that Khomeini was about to impose clerical rules on the film industry. In 1981, he went into exile in Paris but returned to Iran four years later after deciding that he could still make films with integrity in Iran where clerics ruled—unlike Hollywood, where the dollar ruled.

Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi was much more of a revolutionary than Mehrjui and paid for it dearly. Wikipedia reports that in 1953, after Mohammad Mosaddeq was toppled, he and his younger brother were arrested and imprisoned at Shahrbani Prison in Tabriz. As members of the Tudeh party, they were prime suspects of “subversion”. He got in trouble again as the editor of Alefba, a literary magazine with fearless political independence, when he was arrested in 1974 and then tortured by SAVAK, the Shah’s version of Bashar al-Assad’s Mukhabarat. Once Khomeini came to power, Sa’edi continued to be a defender of political freedom and working-class power, but in exile. In 1985, when he was living in exile in Paris, he suffered severe depression over his political disappointments and became an alcoholic, dying of cirrhosis in 1985.

1 Comment »

  1. The Cow has always been one of my favorite movies.

    Comment by stuartbramhall — May 25, 2020 @ 9:44 pm

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