Saturday 29 January 2022

On demand: "Gabbeh"

Gabbeh is the Mohsen Makhmalbaf film that got away from UK audiences: a vividly spun yarn that suggests some sunkissed daytime spin-off from the Arabian Nights, so fundamentally out of step with what was happening not just in Iranian cinema but the cinema entire in the summer of Independence Day that you can understand why exhibitors were wary about taking a chance on it. An elderly couple (Hossein and Rogheih Moharami) arrive at a river to wash the carpet of the title, only for a young woman (Shaghayek Djodat) to appear in full ceremonial dress, bearing a marked resemblance to one of the figures woven into the rug itself. The love story she subsequently recounts - which appears to be playing out both in the historical past and (judging from some of the eyelines) an adjacent field - serves primarily as an excuse for Makhmalbaf to daub the screen with bright colours. "The red of a poppy, the yellow of a wheatfield, the blue of God's heaven," declaims the girl's teacher uncle (Abbas Sayah), plucking these very shades out of the scenes around him with his hands before mixing and matching; the women of the piece, for their part, sport the most vibrant fabrics this side of an Almodóvar movie. The actors are still visibly non-professionals - they demonstrate a certain hesitancy before the camera, and Mr. Moharami, in particular, has the most distinctive speech patterns heard between the dwarf in Twin Peaks and the detective in P'tit Quinquin. Yet the formal austerity we associate with late 80s/early 90s Iranian cinema is comprehensively painted over. 

This is the film that reminds us that the Iranian cinema intersects with the Armenian cinema of Sergei Paradjanov; a film of images that unabashedly announce themselves as images, to be looked and cooed at. Coo we do (how could you not?): at an Andrew Wyeth cornfield rippled violently by the breeze; at the absolute logistical chaos involved in getting a flock of ewes across a river; at dyed fabrics spotting a shoreline like the dots on a Damien Hirst. I wonder whether the purist faction of the Iranian cinema could have accused Makhmalbaf of exoticism, of sensing a moment and fashioning a film for all-too-ready export, like the rugs that line the bazaars in tourist hotspots. Gabbeh is undeniably seductive, a lesson in the use of colour to catch and dazzle the eye. Yet it's also deeply idiosyncratic with it: dreamy and open to interpretation in ways a more obvious sellout couldn't be. There's some properly mad stuff just before the end involving the old man, who's fallen head-over-heels for this radiant apparition, while a series of matchcuts between the gabbeh weavers and a goat prove loopily inspired, pure cinematic instinct. Iranian cinema was about to turn in a more austere, socially conscious direction, largely thanks to Makhmalbaf's own daughter Samira and the stark black chadors of The Apple, Blackboards and At Five in the Afternoon. We might consider Gabbeh a final inky splurge, an eyepopping blowout. One thing's for sure: had it played widely upon first release, we'd never have been able to look at those drab Allied Carpets ads in the same way again.

Gabbeh is now streaming on the Arrow Player.

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