The Cow (1969)
Written by Dariush Mehrjui & Gholam Hossein Saedi
Directed by Dariush Mehrjui
When attempting to convince the American population that war with another country is a good thing, our intelligence community and media outlets try to Other-ize our “enemies.” They report about these nations as if they are some hive mind of villains devoid of art & culture. If you listened to them, you’d think a place like Iran is full of people just sitting around thinking about how much they hate America. Now, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for Iran to hate America, and I’m sure some people there are focused on the conflict. However, Iran has a vibrant cultural history, and they have a very lush film industry as well. They aren’t making cinematic universes full of CG explosions, but I see that as I plus. I will be spending this month looking at just some of the great films to come out of Iran. I think it is essential to explore the art of people we are taught to see as enemies. As Roger Ebert said, “[…] movies are like a machine that generates empathy.”
The Cow is considered a keystone in the cinema of Iran. It was beloved by Ayatollah Khomeini and was the picture that allowed filmmaking to continue in the country even after the revolution in 1979. It’s not some ode to Islam though, it’s a mystic movie that hides its themes under the surface. It’s also not entirely Iranian and was inspired by Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave. As I watched, I could see shades of Vittorio Di Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. However, there are strange elements that the film purposefully obscure and keeps enigmatic, possibly supernatural.
The story is relatively simple. Hassan is a villager in a rural town who adores his pet cow, the only source of milk in the entire region. He’s married, but the cow is like a child to him, even to the point that he brings it to the river for a bath. Hassan leaves for business in another town, and while he is gone, the villagers discover his beloved cow has died. Fearing Hassan’s reaction and not wanting him to feel that pain, they bury the cow. When he returns, they concoct a story about the cow running away. Hassan eventually loses his mind and begins behaving like a cow while the villagers struggle to handle this bizarre turn of events.
The neorealism present in this story is how the daily life of rural Iranians is presented. They are very poor and live as if they were in the middle ages. This raw depiction of rural poverty caused The Cow to be banned in Iran by the harsh regime of the Shah. The dictatorial leader sought to fashion propaganda that revealed only the wealthy metropolitan side of Iran while hiding the effects of his harmful policies. The Cow was snuck out of Iran and gained such acclaim at film festivals that the government eventually relented and released the film with the boundaries of the country. The film also challenges some of the haram beliefs of conservative Islam by presenting mystic and supernatural elements on the screen.
There is an ever-present threat only ever glimpsed from a distance, the Boulouris. They are clad in black robes, and even the mention of their name drives villagers into fear. They come to represent a lingering dread in the lives of Hassan and his neighbors. There is always some threat from far away that is threatening to strike. The Boulouris are suspected of coveting Hassan’s cow, which leads him to protect it even more closely. These enemies never do anything other than stand on the edge of a hill watching. They could represent some foreign threat or merely the abstract of a bad day that comes and takes away all you hold dear.
Reincarnation is a belief held by Islam, similar to the Hindu belief where a soul can migrate between species. The mental breakdown of Hassan can be read as an inversion of this idea. Instead of a human soul migrating into an animal’s body after death, Hassan is possessed by his cow. Her soul has stolen his body because of the bond the two share. He loves this beast more than his own wife, and so in death, he would desire to be reunited with his “child.” In a rural, agrarian setting, a cow is a powerful symbol. It brings life to places where there was a waste before. The milk of the cow is essential to the health of the community, and so the neighbors’ efforts to cover up the death is like a perversion of the reverence they should have for this component of their society.
The Cow doesn’t seek to condemn one way of thinking or another. Instead, it wants to spend time with this village and meditate on the conflicts between its inhabitants. We see how social order collapses when something so cherished and vital is destroyed. Sanity vanishes so quickly when our tenuous grasp on life fails.