Directed by Dariush Mehrjui
With Ezzatollah Entezami (Hassan), Ali Nassirian (Eslam), Ezzatollah Ramazanifar (the village’s idiot), Firouz Behjat Mohammadi (the bad boy)
Watching the watchers: the film begins with a long string of shots, often medium ones or closeups, on rapt faces, riveted by what they observe, which lies beyond the frame, out of the audience’s sight. The film eventually discloses what is transfixing the inhabitants of the small Iranian village where “Gaav – The Cow” takes place: the excited village’s bad boy, wielding torches and laughing, is hazing the village’s idiot he has tied and dressed with a dunce cap. It is a cruel game thrilling the village’s children and condoned by the adults – in fact they seem to be as delighted by the frenzied reactions of the idiot as the tormentor is.
The film thus gives from the start an image of the village really unpleasant and harsh. The contrast could not be starker with the shots depicting how the film’s lead character, shepherd Hassan, takes care of his cow, not only seeing to it it takes a bath and drinks enough but actually playing with the beast in the water, having as much fun as if he were frolicking with kids, amusing images of a great love between a burly and hard-working man and the animal he owns. However, Hassan’s delight is cut short when he realizes he is watched from a distance by seemingly unfriendly watchers standing on a ridge while he is busy in the river – the high angle shot is powerfully revealing of a danger to come. The villagers may be an unsympathetic lot but their lives are under threat. When Hassan comes back to the village and tells what he noticed, dismay spreads over the community: the suspicious fellows are a kind of outlaws feared for the raids they carry out, stealing their way through an already impoverished and struggling area.
The whiteness of the images tells a lot: it is not just the village is made up of spotless white buildings, it is also the blinding light cast by an ever-present and scorching sun and the sensation that the landscape is hopelessly hot and arid. Geography is not specified but the village belongs obviously to one of Iran’s most unforgiving and remote regions. This whiteness is so dominant and intense that the first sequences fade in a blinding white, instead of the usual black. Those sequences have effectively introduced the community and key figures to the audience, emphasizing how brutal relations can be beyond the endless greetings: tempers can flare easily in men’s conversations, especially if the village’s bad boy, fresh from the big city and utterly sarcastic and irreverent, takes part, while Hassan, so gentle with his cow, proves to be a real bully with his wife. They also set in motion the film’s story: Hassan is pictured going away for a day, leaving alone in his cowshed his beloved cow, hoping that when he is back she would be ready to calve.
Instead, it dies. Hassan’s wife is appalled and the villagers horrified – it was the only cow of their community and the apple of Hassan’s eyes. Gathered in the main square they wonder what to do. The smartest brain of the group and a close friend of Hassan, Eslam, comes up with an awkward solution: to tell him the cow has walked away and strayed far away and is eagerly looked for by another shepherd who would of course find it sooner or later. The other shepherd is right away hidden in a distant property and the village’s idiot, out of fear he could blunder, is locked up in an abandoned house. And the cow is buried in a dried-up well.
To make believe the cow is still alive and delaying the embarrassing moment when the community has to cope with Hassan’s sorrow is not really smart. It seems bound to create further troubles. And indeed, the sequence fades in the usual black, the first visual cue to the tragedy to come.
The other big visual trick pointing how the story tips into a darker, more heartbreaking, more radical too, register is a stunning POV shot, the camera teetering like Hassan as the shepherd, who has been told by an embarrassed Eslam the big lie about the cow’s disappearance, walks toward his cowshed, the open door standing as another black surface where the story moves from one disaster to another. This proves a point of no return: Hassan slowly gets not just just sadder and sadder but also madder and madder. He quickly views himself as the lost cow, spending all his time in the cowshed, sleeping on the ground, munching the hay, and silent. First amazed and then unnerved, his fellow villagers are forced to witness a poignant case of insanity developing fast and seemingly with no possibility to be cured out of the silly lie they crafted.
Watching the watchers, again: the villagers follow Hassan’s deteriorating mental health by standing against the cowshed’s window opening on the court of Hassan’s property. They are shot from the court but also from inside the cowshed: in the wake of the decisive POV shot, the film strives to view them from Hassan’s viewpoint. If in the first scene the film observed the villagers and the idiot on the same footing, it now clearly sides with the madman, delivering even more pathetic and scathing images of villagers whose behaviors have grown even more irresponsible. Now, they have no reason to laugh but many to despair.
Eslam, reluctantly and belatedly, way too late and not very honestly in fact, realizes Hassan must be taken to the hospital of the nearby great city. With two other men one morning he departs, holding Hassan, who has refused to move, at the end of a rope, the poor fellow being strongly tied up, so unruly he has been. Across the harsh ground and under a torrential rain the peasants stumble, gentle Eslam eventually losing self-control and behaving like a brute towards a friend he readily treats like an animal. And the friend would run away to his death. Up in the hills, once again, the three outlaws who have tried to steal the cow – only to find Hassan pretending to be his cow – and spooked again the community, are there again and look down.
Beyond the naturalistic approach, the film looks like a fable, portraying an eccentric case of insanity to tell a few things about truth and relations between humans – and between humans and animals. Fully sympathizing with Hassan, despite his flaws, director Dariush Mehrjui shows how refusing to tell the truth and to acknowledge an unpleasant fact, and moreover to accept to cope with this fact’s consequences, easily drive men to manipulate others and create more problems. Obviously the villagers were right to think Hassan’s sorrow would be huge and hard to soothe, but their lie turned out to be a disastrous idea, along with the way they handled Hassan upon his return.
The smart brains and powers-that-be err on the wrong side, behaving foolishly and painting themselves into a corner. As Eslam’s narrative arc points, this can become a slippery slope towards more callousness and more chaos. The tale can easily be read as warning for powers tempted to make absurd claims and unrealistic promises, luring them into a false sense of security and satisfaction. After all, the Iranian regime was committed to big reforms and ignoring facts and feelings to build what was supposed to be a modern and thriving, Western-like economy. People were told anything but their real needs and views were not taken into account. While the shah would fancy that his country could soon be among the ten richest in the world (stunning the German journalist hearing the shah’s conceited, self-intoxicating remarks), most Iranian were living in the kind of gruelling poverty and cultural backwardness the film documents.
The film also seems to urge a more humane, more respectful, attitudes towards animals just by telling this incredible story of a shepherd so fond of his cow that he would rather be like it instead of staying a man once he gathers the cow has vanished from his life. It is another way to indict the cruelty of his fellow villagers, like the sympathizing shots on the stubborn resilience of the idiot in the face of the constant humiliation and harassment he suffers from. Popular worshiping of Islam is not spared an ironic criticism, the camera capturing the feverish devotion and belief in magic powers of objects displayed by the old women only to underline how ineffective they are, even stupid given the extent of Hassan’s condition. But the film stands out also as a wonderfully crafted black and white vision, light and darkness (of the night or of the cowshed) being brilliantly used to convey the roughness of Hassan’s world and the tragedy of his life. Fully aware of the great power of angles and shots, the director compels his audience to view the characters in fresh ways and to face truths that are unpalatable but also heartbreaking and unforgettable.