The Cow, produced in 1969, was a pioneer in this artistic insurgency, in which Iranian filmmakers, influenced by Italian Neorealism and the French New Wave, presented social realist themes in a codified film language adapted from Persian poetry. Directed and co-written by Dariush Mehrjui, the film concerned a poor rural villager’s mental breakdown following the death of his beloved cow and marked an artistic turning point in Iranian cinema, highlighting the complicated relationship between the state and the artistic film community in Iran that continues to this day.
A poetic-realist, working-class fable, adapted by Mehrjui and the popular writer Gholam-Hossein Sa'edi from Sa'edi's short story, The Cow expresses a bleak outlook on the socio-economic situation in Iran, rebelling against the self-congratulatory modernism of the Shah. The narrative of the film exemplifies Sa'edi's interest in the rural poor, and the complex psychology of characters, translating the themes from Persian literature and folklore into a modern mode, much like the New Poets.
Mehrjui and Sa'edi's film presented the poverty of the Iranian rural underclass in realistic terms, contrary to the desires of the Shah, who pushed for cinema to convey a propagandistic image of a modernised Iran, and the more conservative Islamic authorities, who considered aniconism in art haram (forbidden) – especially representations outside of the idealized image of the eternal Quranic man. Ironically, the film was funded by the Ministry of Culture and Arts as an effort to produce a home-grown cinema that could display the modernisation of Iran to the outside world. The film was subject to a ban following its completion and was only released by the censors after being smuggled to Europe and winning international acclaim, such as the critics' award at the 1967 Venice film festival, with the Shah being inclined to capitalise on any Western approval of an artistically mature Iran. However, the censors did hedge their bets by adding a note, preceding the film, which reconfigured the story as occurring before the modernisation project of the Shah.
Sa'edi, trained as a doctor but specialising in psychology, published the short story collection The Mourners of Bayal that contains The Cow while simultaneously writing ethnographic accounts of his travels in Iran. Fascinated with the culture of rural Iran ever since his family fled the Soviet invasion of Tabriz to a small village, Sa'edi would go on to study folklore and rural issues at the Institute of Social Studies and Research. This appreciation of Iranian folk culture and Persian mysticism informs the narrative of The Cow, wherein the doctrine of transmigration, amongst other ancient Persian concepts, is used symbolically to comment on the sociology and psychology of the oppressed working class in rural Iran.
The doctrine of transmigration is a belief in the transition of souls through other bodies by a series of rebirths, commonly referred to by the Arabic word tamsukh. Originally a Hindu concept, transmigration travelled to Persia by way of Baghdad finding its way into a variety of dissident sects of Islam, such as the Mu'tazilites. The Persian philosopher Ibn Sīnā wrote about the belief in transmigration and his writings show a strong interest in the nature of the human soul, which he considered to be pre-existent and immortal; 'a prisoner while in this world and in the body'. Ibn Sina himself reported that he treated a Samanid prince, Nooh ibn Mansur '[who] had melancholia and suffered from the delusion that he is a cow', which is a likely influence for Sa'edi's narrative.
Furthermore, a poet of the Sufi order known as Rumi, but born Mawlana Jalal al-din Muhammad in 1207 CE, wrote poems reflecting a belief in the transmigration of souls, which are still very popular in Iran:
'The moment thou to this low world was given,
A ladder stood whereby thou mightest aspire.
And first thy steps, which upward still have striven
From mineral mounted to the plant ; then higher.
With knowledge, reason, faith. O wondrous goal!
To animal existence; next, the Man'
'I died as a mineral and became a plant,
I died as plant and rose to animal,
I died as animal and I was Man.
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
...To Him we shall return.'
(‘I Died as a Mineral’, trans. R. A. Nicholson)
The transmigration in Rumi's poetry is an evolution, through rebirth, on a path to the 'wondrous goal' of a return to God – the eternal 'Beloved' and source of all truth. Hassan's madness is a reversal of this mystical transmigration from animal to man, representing what Sa'edi perceives as the crushing effect of poverty and ignorance on society and psychology in Iran's rural communities. Hassan is no more able to escape poverty and fear in this world than escape the 'prison' of his earthly body for the world beyond. As a doctor, Sa'edi treated the poor in the slums of Darvazeh Qazvin and came to the conclusion that 'an individual's psychological state is mainly the product of his environment and social conditions' and, in Bayal, humans and animals dwell in the same featureless hovels. Hassan and his fellow Bayalis are dehumanised by their surroundings, becoming animals caught in a trap that they can't escape. Suffering from what Sa'edi called the 'nameless and traceless anxieties' of rural life, Hassan is as vulnerable to the threats of poverty as his cow is to the cattle rustlers from Boulouris. The mystical transmigration, progressing from mineral to man - ignorance to truth - is corrupted by the animalisation of rural Iranians and the debasement they apply to each other under these conditions. As the film begins, we witness the faces of the villagers passively watching a young man, clearly suffering from some mental disability, being decorated with cow bells round his neck and tortured, while tied to a tree. This sequence foreshadows later events and exposes a dark truth about Bayali; their dehumanising treatment of their weakest member revealing that they too are becoming animals.
The cow of the story is the only visible source of food and subsistence in the village, but also holds a mystical importance, itself an ancient Iranian symbol of the pre-islamic religion of Zoroastrianism, the oldest religion in Iran and still widely present in festivals and customs. In Zoroastrianism, the cow is the mythical 'first animal' and represents the concept of wahman (good purpose), as explained in the Encyclopædia Iranica:
'Quietly grazing cattle could thus come to represent peace against strife, law against lawlessness, fertility against destruction, communal living against selfish greed, and so the cow took on a moral dimension.'
The cattle raiding Boulouris possibly represent a western invading force (Boluri meaning 'fair-skinned' in Farsi) or could merely represent the constant threat of death and destruction in rural life. Regardless of the exact significance of the Boulouris, the cattle raiding in The Cow is analogous to the connection between the theft and killing of cows and the plight of the poor in Zoroastrianism. In the ancient verse poetry of the Gathas of Zoroastrianism, Zoroaster relates his witnessing of violent assaults on, and thefts of, cattle to the struggle of the poor of good purpose:
'The harsh reality of a cattle raid has been seen to underlie...the joint plight of the poor man wronged and the stolen beast...where drigu [the poor ascetic] “faithful to Truth”...but “deprived of his rights”, laments to the heavens together with the helpless cow...'
Sa'edi and Mehrjui relate their socio-economic narrative to the ancient traditions and myths of Iran in order to connect the seeking of social justice in modern Iran with its cultural heritage of humanism and fair treatment of the poor and needy. The death of the beloved cow in the film sparks an erosion of the morality of the village, as people that were once respectful of the divine attributes of the cow devolve into violence and oppression. Islam, named with symbolic significance, is the moral authority of the village, evident by the frequent cries of ‘What do we do, Islam?’ from the other villagers. When worried about the effect of the cow's death on Hassan, the villagers decide to lie to him and hide the carcass. In the discussion, Islam shows his appreciation for the Iranian tradition of esteem for the cow when a villager suggests skinning the dead cow before hiding it from Hassan, as Islam corrects him, claiming 'it's a sin to use the skin of a dead animal'. However, as Hassan further devolves, Islam begins to lose his moral standing. The villagers, led by Islam, resolve to take Hassan to the nearest hospital by tying his hands together with a rope, in a way that mimics the treatment of the young man at the start of the film, and dragging him to town. Battered by the long walk in the torrential rain, Islam breaks his stoic manner and begins to beat and whip Hassan, as if he were indeed the cow he believes himself to be. Hassan, who lived his life with 'good purpose', obeying the ancient Iranian code of benevolence to the cow ('with diligence cares for the cattle, he shall be hereafter in the pasture of Right and Good Thought' [Ahunavaiti Gatha 33.3]) throws himself from a cliff and dies. Under the stares of the shocked villagers, it is Islam's dehumanising treatment that is seen as the ultimate transgression. In contrast, Hassan's reversed transmigration is a rational response to a crisis of identity. The dual soul of Hassan and his cow represent the connected spirit of 'good purpose' and a moral life that leads to mythological paradise, and by denying the humanism inherent in their shared history the villagers destroy that connection.
The film's poetic commentary on Iranian society is neither fully extolling nor admonishing modernisation, but rather takes a measured approach that criticises the heartless abandonment of rural Iranians by the Shah while also criticising the atavistic aspects of village society, the ignorant institutions and practices of Shi'i Islam, and bemoaning the loss of humanistic Iranian traditions. The symbolism and references in The Cow were used by Sa'edi and Mehrjui to promote a cultural nationalism in the face of a profound cultural disorientation, that looked both forward and back, trying to link ordinary Iranians to the best features of a cultural heritage that might be forgotten or censored during the Shah's blind drive for modernisation. As Sa'edi himself said, 'no society exists that has no culture... if you block the movement of a culture, in any nation, it will cry...and death is inevitable'.
By Kieran Gosney