Saturday, October 6, 2012

All the Colors of the Rainbow

Film: Gabbeh
Format: DVD from Reddick Library through interlibrary loan on big ol’ television.

I don’t often watch the same film twice in a row, but there are times when I find it necessary. With Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh, it was necessary, but that’s not a bad thing. I was willing to watch a second time because even though I didn’t completely understand it the first time (or, in the interest of full disclosure, the second time), I enjoyed it very much. Gabbeh is one of the most visually rich films I have ever seen, even if its meaning is pretty opaque. I think there’s also some truth to the idea that I didn’t understand it was well as I could have because I’m not immersed in Iranian film, or Persian myself.

The film is a mixture of fairy tale and magical realism, and it works on many levels at the same time. We start with an old couple (Hossein and Rogheih Moharami) who are walking to a pool of water with the intent of cleaning their rug, called a gabbeh. Before they begin cleaning it, a young woman appears on the rug and claims her name is Gabbeh (Shaghayeh Djodat). And here’s where the multiple levels kick in. She might be the spirit of the rug, since gabbehs traditionally tell stories, and specifically tell stories of the weaver. She might also be the old woman in a younger form. She might also be the sort of idealized version of a woman, or the old woman.

Anyway, she tells her story, which is consistently mixed in with the present. She wishes to marry her suitor, a horseman, but is consistently refused the right by her father. We frequently cut back to the old couple who sometimes take the roles of her father, her suitor, her uncle, her mother, and her, essentially playacting the story along with her. The uncle (Abbas Sayah) is a key figure in the film. In part, this is because initially Gabbeh cannot marry until he does. He is also important because he is not only a secondary father figure, but is also a man who lives in a magically real world.

The most striking sequence of the film comes early as the uncle stands in a classroom discussing various colors with the children. We see him point out to a distant field, his finger coming to rest on a poppy in the perspective we are given. The children shout the color, he makes a grasping motion with his hand, and he pulls in a bouquet of flowers. He does the same with yellow wheat. He points to the sky and pulls back a hand covered in blue; his other hands points at the sun and turns yellow. It’s a striking series of images, all done with simple cuts instead of fancy CGI or camera tricks, and it surprisingly beautiful.

Recently on her site, Jessica at The Velvet Café asked opinions regarding having to watch films a second time. I jumped in almost immediately and said that I don’t mind repeat viewings, but that I like to have something after a first viewing for me to latch onto. Gabbeh almost put a hole in that statement for me, since I did watch it a second time immediately—pretty much as soon as I dropped back to the DVD menu, I pressed “play” again. And I didn’t really get it the first time. That thing that I latched onto, though was just how plainly gorgeous it is. It’s a beautiful film, filled with amazing colors and landscapes and scenery. Everything, from the clothing to the rich flowers and plants is incredibly lush and beautiful. Opaque though the film may be, it is an absolute visual feast, the sort of thing many (including myself) would be happy to watch just for the spectacle it presents on the screen. It doesn’t hurt in the rewatching that the film is also ridiculously short, coming in just a few heartbeats longer than an hour (actually, just under 70 minutes).

Like any good film that attempts to make an artistic statement far more than it attempts to tell a compelling and concise narrative, the ending is one open to a number of interpretations. Makhmalbaf is almost certainly hinting at something going on in Iran with the end of this film, but I’m not nearly aware enough of Iranian politics to know exactly what he’s trying to say. I know enough to know that it’s there, and that’s about it.

So what did I think? I thought it was beautiful. There’s still a mystery here to be unraveled, I think, but it’s a pretty mystery wrapped up in a gorgeous bow. I could watch the uncle talk about color for an hour without being bored. That, in and of itself, is worth something. A little investigation shows that the whole idea of color is itself political in Iran—women in the cities were, at the time of filming, prevented from wearing the colors that women in this film are resplendent in. This knowledge lends a new and interesting twist on the repeated idea that color is life. Perhaps it’s more accurate to suggest that color is freedom, but for those under the heel of an oppressive, dogmatic theocracy, there may well be little difference.

Why to watch Gabbeh: It’s stunningly beautiful.
Why not to watch: You’ll probably need to watch it at least twice.


  1. I tend to rewatch films in order to write their review. I give the film a first viewing where I am intensely focused on it, then I put it on in the background whilst I write about it.

    I like this film too (I even have a review for it posted on my site!). I was NOT expecting an Iranian fairy tale when I started watching it, but that's precisely what it is.

    I loved loved loved the part with the uncle talking about color. It made me happy.

    For my part, I tend not to believe that the old couple is old Gabbeh and her lover, now married. Personally, I find it a more poetic tale if Gabbeh is killed by her father for running away, BUT BUT BUT this is completely my own interpretation of the film. I just think it's a more interesting story that way.

  2. I tend to take notes while the film plays and then play clean-up once the film is done. I do sometimes go back and rewatch particular scenes, but very rarely the entire movie. Gabbeh was unique in that I not only watched it twice in a row, I found that I had taken almost no notes on it, since I was mesmerized by what was on the screen.

    The uncle discussing color is one of the most beautiful film sequences I have ever seen.

    I'm with you on the end. I think it can be interpreted that way, and I think no matter what she may say at the end, that I interpret it the same way you do. It makes more sense.

  3. I watched Gabbeh on YouTube last night. Without sub-titles.

    Some YouTube choices do not include any English options. I'm fortunate that I read Spanish passably and can also comprehend German almost as well. The German has never come in handy with a movie from the List (I've used it for other rare films I came across on YouTube). But the Spanish has been very helpful as quite a few films (including films from the List) have Spanish sub-titles. The most recent films I watched with sub-titles in Spanish are Bunuel's Los olvidados and Black God, White Devil.

    But lately, I've come across a few films that I want to see where neither English or Spanish options are available. And I've only recently decided to start giving some of these films a chance.

    I read up on them to have an idea what I might be missing. Your write-ups have been very helpful on the two films I've watched without a language option I understand. But I also look at Wikipedia and IMDB for other helpful details.

    And if I hit a point where I'm not enjoying the film or getting anything out of it, Ill stop watching it and wait for a version with English or Spanish. But that hasn't happened yet.

    I did feel like I missed a lot in Julie and Celine Go Boating, but I was enjoying the film so much that I wasn't worried about it. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to see it in English in the future.

    And last night I felt the same way about Gabbeh. I really enjoyed it. I was sucked into it pretty quickly, and I was about a third of the way through it before I even remembered that I was going to evaluate what I was getting out of it after ten minutes. I was way past that point, and liking it a lot and getting a lot out of it.

    I'm sure I didn't get everything out of it that I was supposed to get. But that happens to me with English-language movies all the time.

    And yeah the guy reaching out of the tent and grabbing the flowers and the sky - that was beautiful. And I could see that without knowing exactly what he was saying.

    1. I'd be curious to watch this without subtitles. I do wonder how much of it is understandable without really knowing what the story is.

      But yeah--that scene is pretty special, isn't it? It's such a cool visual idea and it's communicated so beautifully and simply. Moments like that are why I watch movies in the first place.