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GABBEH(director/writer/editor: Mohsen Makhmalbaf; cinematographer: Mahmoud Kalari; cast: Shaghayegh Djodat (Gabbeh), Hossein Moharami (Old Man), Roghieh Moharami (Roghieh), Abbas Sayahi (Uncle); Runtime: 74; MK2 Prods/Sanayeh Dasti; 1996-Iran)
“This fairy tale film is a feast for hungry eyes.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A gorgeously filmed fable taking place in the steppes of southeastern Iran, about the nomadic Ghashghai tribe noted for the handicraft of their beautiful carpets. A Gabbeh is a carpet and it is also the name of a young tribeswoman (Djodat), whose father won’t give her permission to marry. He says he will kill her if she runs away with the suitor who is calling her daily with wolf calls from the distant hills. She appears like an attractive apparition sitting by the stream, where sometimes she is seen smiling sweetly and other times sadly reflecting the pains she feels in her tender heart. She’s clad in a traditional dress, which is an ornate blue color that matches the carpet.

To fully appreciate the tale, which is told in the same fanciful manner these simple nomads weave their carpets, one must suspend one’s disbelief and enter into a fairy tale land of richly decorative colors and visions and take heed as Gabbeh sings her heartfelt song that “love is color” and that “love is pain.”

The film opens as an elderly couple (Hossein Moharami and Roghieh Moharami) argue back and forth by the stream as they try to decide which one of them should stand in the water and wash the carpet they have just made, which has the design of a woman in blue and a man in red riding together on a white horse. We see the carpet as if it were a magical one, as it is spread out on the water. Their creation is made from their life history and their bitter and joyous memories.

For those who value Persian rugs it is because of all the stories and detail that go into the carpet, making it an inspired work of art that gives it its intrinsic value; it is a work of art that is unrivaled precisely because it is made without set patterns.

The film was originally supposed to be a documentary sponsored by the Persian carpet industry. But if you can ignore that sponsorship factor, you will see a film that turns out to be so endearing that it is easy to be taken in by the power of its raw beauty.

It tells of the girl’s song about her lover calling to her on horseback and how these calls tear at her heart, and about her mean father who won’t let her marry until her 57-year-old uncle weds. What finally breaks her heart is that when the uncle marries for the first time she, as the eldest, is then told that she will have to wait until her mother gives birth to her eight child before she can marry her lover. This seems to be too much for the young girl to endure.

We are left with the impression that Gabbeh has at last summoned up enough nerve to run away with her lover. The father rides after them firing some shots at them and soon returns to his tribe to tell them they better not desert the tribe, or else they too would be dead. But in this enchanting film what appears to be happening might be different from what actually occurs, as we are left to ponder her relationship with the elderly couple (oddly enough, the old wife is wearing a traditional blue dress that is identical to Gabbeh’s).

I quite frankly don’t understand all the cultural ramifications of the tale and what the exact meaning of its conclusion amounts to, but that didn’t hinder me from being amazed by the stunningly lush landscapes and from enjoying the film as is.

Iranian films of this nature require a different way of looking at them, something that American audiences might take a lot of getting used to. This artistic (not poetic) film is one that is not necessarily better than American films, as much as it is different. Don’t look for the usual Hollywood formula contrivances to drive the film to its conclusion. In Iran there seems to be a genuine respect for the artist, that allows him to tell his story as he sees fit without some studio execs coming in and cutting it up (that is not to downplay or neglect the repressive regime that acts as a censor and makes their film industry suffer unduly because of their narrow-mindedness).

This fairy tale film is a feast for hungry eyes (I can’t get over how the wheat fields depicted looked so much like van Gogh’s). But, with that being said, I would be remiss if I did not mention that this simple tale, is one that has almost no insight into modern Iran; it is a popular film, aimed at upsetting no one– foreigner and Iranian alike. If I had to compare it with an American type of film it most closely resembles, I would have to say a “Disney” film. In other words this is not a personal film, one in which the director’s poetical vision is inspirational. Instead, it is a safe, non-political, beautifully shot romantic fantasy, that is more pleasing to the eye than to the mind. It is one to be admired, as one might a beautiful woman.


Dennis Schwartz: ” Ozus’ World Movie Reviews “