Director: Dariush Mehrjui
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists
Iran, the 1960s. Masht Hassan owns the only cow in his village, which affords him importance and prestige. Married but without children, Hassan treats the cow as if it were his child, constantly tending to it and even sleeping in the same barn some nights. This tight-knit village is concerned about the inhabitants of a neighbouring village, the Boulouris, who they suspect of wanting to do harm to the cow and the village itself. One morning, Hassan leaves the village on business. His wife then finds the cow dead in the barn. The villagers are grief stricken and suspect the Boulouris of foul play. Knowing that Hassan will be devastated, they concoct a lie; to tell Hassan that his cow has strayed. The villagers then bury the cow, then tie up the local simpleton whom they suspect will tell the truth.
Hassan returns, but doubts the accuracy of the explanation the villagers have devised – he knows his cow would not stray. Distraught, Hassan begins to adopt mannerisms similar to that of a cow; mooing, sleeping in the barn, chewing hay and so on. During this descent into madness, he comes to believe he is Hassan’s cow, not Hassan himself. The villagers are at a loss of what to do next as his situation is badly deteriorating. Hassan is taken to the nearest hospital, dragged like an animal, and when he resists, he is beaten like an animal until he finally dies.
‘The Cow’ is considered a landmark in Iranian cinema. It was certainly the first Iranian film to grab the attention of Western critics and inspired a new era in Iranian film-making. That said, it was officially disapproved of by the reigning Shah at the time, because of concerns that it depicted Iranian village life as backwards and unadvanced. ‘The Cow’ later received an unlikely admirer later in the form of Ayatollah Khomeini, who recognised its accurate portrayal of life in Iran, and it was this admiration that arguably allowed Iranian cinema to continue after the 1979 revolution, rather than be banned outright.
Only the second film by a then 28 year old director, ‘The Cow’ is a remarkably mature piece of work, heavily influenced by the Italian neo-realists who themselves received the film warmly at the 1971 Venice Film Festival. Starting with a basic premise, albeit one that was reportedly inspired by fact; the Samanid prince Nooh ibn Mansur apparently once believed himself to be a cow, Mehrjui makes the most of this, expanding it to incorporate an impartial examination of contemporary village life in Iran; the insular nature of these villages, their fear of outsiders and neighbouring villages, but also their sense of togetherness during crises. The threat to the village from the Boulouris could be real or imagined. Mehrjui leaves it largely to our imagination through the ominous appearances of them upon the hills overlooking the village and the dazzling night sequences where the two villages seem to raid each other. Certainly any disaster that befalls the village is immediately blamed upon their neighbours, suggesting that its insular nature has its negative connotations. Regardless of which view one subscribes to; the Shah’s or the Ayatollah’s, ‘The Cow’ represents a realistic depiction in both its good and less good dimensions.
The eponymous cow itself could be seen as a metaphor for Hassan’s own sense of self-respect and importance, and in the absence of the cow, this is immediately stripped from him. This brings to mind Murnau’s ‘The Last Laugh’ (1924), in which Emil Jannings’ doorman loses his sense of purpose when retired from his position as a hotel doorman, and specifically the loss of the appropriate coat, his badge of pride. Like this doorman, Hassan descends into madness upon losing this self-respect, which manifests itself in Hassan adopting the behaviour of his cow, then assuming its identity – “I’m not Hassan, I’m Hassan’s cow”. Perhaps more disturbing than Hassan’s change of identity is how once the community finds itself unable to address it, it becomes to accept Hassan’s delusion. This frustration culminates in the film’s final devastating scenes, during which one villager beats Hassan – “get going you beast”, as if he is the cow he believes himself to be. Like a disrespectful or lame animal, Hassan is then beaten until he can take no more. The village’s togetherness is also built on a level of lies of self-deception and Hassan is the ultimate victim of this facade.
The success of ‘The Cow’ partly depends on the astonishing central performance of Ezzatolah Entezami as Hassan, who convinces throughout in his transformation from doting cow-owner to a broken man who no longer knows who he is. Mehrjui offers great insight into the dynamics of the village in question; how it remains self-sufficient but questions its level of tolerance, and also uses the correct camera techniques for the situation; close-ups on faces and long shots when observing the village from an objective distance. Otherwise, Mehrjui presents ‘The Cow’ in standard neo-realist fashion; nothing ground-breaking aesthetically, but then there is no requirement for him to do anything beyond presenting events as they are, as they occur. Mehrjui has continued to make films in the following forty years or so, but none of his subsequent films has achieved the recognition and acclaim that ‘The Cow’ has. Iranian film-making of the previous two decades, personified by Kiarostami and the Makhmalbaf dynasty owes everything to the films of Mehrjui because who knows whether there would even be such a hospitable climate to film-making without it?