"Life is color! Love is color!" jubilant characters proclaim in Gabbeh, Iranian iridescence on the big screen. In one scene, a guest teacher (Abbas Sayyahi) gets rhapsodic before his primary-age pupils about the red of poppies, the yellow of wheat fields, the blue, blue of the sky, the way the adults on Sesame Street cream over the alphabet.
Not since 1966, when Michelangelo Antonioni painted a deeper green the verdant grass of Hyde Park for Blowup, has a director been so self-consciously messianic about color as Iran's Mohsen Makhmalbaf for Gabbeh. "The most beautiful film I've ever seen," a friend I brought to the screening whispered to me. Could be, whether it's the custardy snow of a winter desert, or a long shot of an oasis which seems painted by Gauguin discovering Polynesia. Or the titular "gabbeh," an Iranian, natural-dye peasant rug, being rinsed in a babbling brook.
What's this aesthetic all about? Makhmalbaf, Iran's most popular filmmaker, is atoning for his dour, puritanical adolescence when, under the spell of his religious Moslem grandmother, he rejected cinema as unholy stuff, and spent five years imprisoned by the Shah as a fundamentalist terrorist. How transformed is he? "When I first saw Wings of Desire, I wished that my grandmother were still alive so that I could show her that not all movies take you to hell," he explained in a 1995 interview. "(T)here are some that can take you to Paradise--. . . the Paradise within life."
Gabbeh is shaped like an Arabian Nights fairy-tale. An ancient couple washing a "gabbeh" in the countryside meet a princess-like young woman, also named Gabbeh, who relates a tale of woe. She's been engaged forever to a mysterious horsebacked suitor, who follows after her nomadic family as they traverse Iran's deserts, seasons spinning. He's always there, rearing on his white stead like the Lone Ranger, howling in the wind a wolf's cry of passion, Tarzan craving his Jane.
But there are endless obstacles. Gabbeh's hot-tempered father doesn't approve. Before she can marry, her aging uncle must find a bride. Before she can marry, her mother must give birth to a baby. Before she can marry, her family must come out of mourning for her deceased little sister. And so on, year after year.
Until, one day, Gabbeh and the lover run away. The father comes after, with a large rifle!
Makhmalbaf invariably populates his films with non-professionals, but the casting of Gabbeh is genuinely radical. The old old couple were a real-life husband-and-wife in their late 80s who had never seen a movie. The nomads, who appear cut into the film from the real world, an ingenious stroke of anthropology, were actually non-nomads picked from actor auditions.
The spunky uncle-turned-teacher (Sayyahi) seemed a ringer in the film: a famous Iranian comic, I figured, who was utilized in Gabbeh to inject some thespian professionalism. Wrong. He's a retired teacher who owns a dye factory, and has revived the traditional way of dyeing wool for making "gabbehs."
The most amusing biography is that of Shaghayegh Jodat, 25, the beautiful Scheherezade-like Gabbeh, who carries the film. She first popped up in Salaam Cinema, Mahkmalbaf's documentary of an open casting session which he held in Tehran. Thousand of starstruck Iranians showed up, desperate to make a movie. Jodat strolled in completely disinterested in cinema. She begged to be cast, because the film might show at film festivals, allowing her to visit her boyfriend who lived abroad.