“Life is colour; love is colour”
‘Gabbeh’, directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf in 1996, is an Iranian movie that, whilst short, manages to create an entirely distinct and magical cinematic universe all of its own. It begins with a fractious elderly couple who go to the river to wash their rug. When they unfurl it, a beautiful woman appears and tells them the story of her life, her lost love and her uncle’s quest for the perfect wife. It’s a film like no other, but one that contradictorily manages to draw on a range of different directors. Makhmalbaf uses colour and narrative like Fellini, but his focus on elemental forces such as water, the wind and animals recalls Tarkovsky. All of this is woven into a magical fabric (in fact the film constantly returns to the imagery of weaving a cloth as a metaphor for the telling of the story) that is distinctly Iranian. I found the experience of watching the film to be similar to that of unsettlingly alien feeling I received watching ‘Yeelen’: completely different to any other film I’ve seen. Highlights of the film include a scene in which a man teaches the children of his tribe about colour by pointing around him to vegetation, the sky, the sun. We see his hand, giant against the distant objects, scooping at them and improbably bringing samples back to illustrate his lesson. Again this seems to be a metaphor for filmmaking, trapping while vistas and even abstract concepts into a screen. In another sequence, the animals: the goats, hens and small birds, gradually take over the film both conceptually in the sense that they are used as a reflection of the quests of the different humans, but also literally as the noise of the animals begins to dominate the soundtrack of the film. Finally, Makhmalbaf manages to create a sense of uneasiness. At first, the elderly couple seem doddering and speak falteringly. As the film progresses, and the old man is slowly captivated by the younger woman, his stammering and stilted voice begins to transform into the unearthly howl of a wolf. For me, this completed the feeling that I was watching something entirely alien to anything I have experienced before.
Would I recommend it? Yes – ‘Gabbeh’ would work nicely with a combination of ‘Mirror’ and ‘Amarcord’, but the double bill I would suggest on this occasion would be ‘Yeelen’ for the two films shared sense of myth and magic.