The Cow (1969)

Considered to be the beginning of the Iranian New Wave, The Cow marks an interesting cornerstone of Iranian Cinema. Simultaneously grounded in neo-realism sensibilities and liberated by surreal narrative touches, The Cow functions as both a moving human drama and a subversive ideological piece.

Masht Hassan (Ezzatolah Entezami) is infatuated with his cow. He treats it like a child, going out of his way to let her graze in the open fields outside town and playing with her after a hard day of work is done. Therefore, when Hassan is gone for the day and his wife discovers the cow dead, the town quickly rallies together to come up with a solution. They resolve to hide the cow and tell Hassan she has run away, but the town soon discovers that their plan makes things much worse.

The film is a subversive drama, but it has the aesthetic sensibilities of a horror film. The screeching, erratic score gives even some of the daytime shots a disturbing twist. The aural work often undermines and twists the images, suggesting what is seen is a ruse to disguise what is actually at work. It’s a grating, unpleasant sensation that problematizes the noble intentions of the town.

Likewise, the evening shots in this film are permeated with darkness. While this might be due to budgetary constraints that made nighttime lighting sparse, the result is that the nighttime shows the audience what the music teases throughout the film, the dark, sinister and feverish side of town. It creates a lot of tense, suspenseful moments where one almost expects a boogie man to step into the frame.

The film’s emotional tug is earned through the time it invests with Hassan beforehand. Those opening moments spent with him where he spends time with his cow allows the audience to understand the impact of the cow’s death. One could callously disregard the gravitas of the film because, after all, only a cow has died, but the film makes sure to demonstrate how significant the cow actually was.

However, the film realizes that some of the subject matter is blown a bit out of proportion. There’s a bit of dark comedy at play in the later sections of the film. The pacing of the reactions and the way certain moments are framed allow for this undercurrent of humor. It’s not hilarious as much as it is distantly amusing and perversely twisted.

The big question is what does it all mean? The film involves a couple of bold twists that open the film up to be understood as subversive and symbolic. There isn’t an easy, obviously corollary to be made. The cow isn’t representative of one idea any more than Hassan’s reaction to her absence has a simple solution. It’s more about the relationship, that anyone who invests so much in a singular thing runs the risk of being transformed once what they love is taken away. It could be a broad system of government, or it might be as simple as one’s devotion to a pleasure or practice.

In this regard, The Cow is a cautionary tale about the perils of what one loves and adores. It’s a testament to the film that it treats this issue both as a tragic human problem as well as a twisted horror tale. It’s one of those rare films where the story is as moving as it is thought provoking, A story of both the troubles of the heart and but with enough distance to ponder over the implications.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing