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Repressive countries are by their nature, well, repressive. Freedom of speech is restrained and, thereby, styles of expression as well. This clearly creates a situation where the arts are stunted in thier growth. A country with a particular policy would only want their artists to create art which makes sense to both the general population and the ideal the government wants to propagate to that population. To make a film about a contrary topic, or even in an unusal style, could confuse, offend, or subvert people, which the government would not want. Gabbeh, a film from Iran, is a good example of this, as it's very much a film of its place. It is mild, inoffensive, and contains numerous images of a tradition Iranian culture, depicted in a warm and perhaps domineering way. I would almost see it as a promotion of the country.

Yet, in many ways, the film does get away with a few things. For one thing, although the story that is told is quite basic, even cliched, the way it is told is challenging, strange, and difficult. This challenge begins with the premise itself, in which an old couple are at a stream. The woman is about to wash a rug (gabbeh), the pattern of which contains a design of a young couple running away on horseback. The old woman speaks to the rug, and then, strangely, a young woman appears on the rug, to tell the story of what the design signifies.

Her story, simply, is this: she is a young woman hoping to marry someone from another tribe, yet many different obstacles stand in her way, obstacles which may sound pretty strange to us, but apparently have some sort of meaning in the culture. For one thing, her uncle has yet to be married. But, at 57, he sure is taking his time! And, then, even after he finally gets hitched, she is told she cannot be married until they complete a long trek and a lot of work. Eventually, however, she defies these constant hindrances, and by doing so, may pay a price.

That`s the story in a nutshell, and a story I don`t really care deeply for. What was interesting for me were all the details and asides in the movie itself. My most favorite scene involved the uncle, who has rather rigorous conditions for the perfect woman he will choose as wife: she must sing like a canary, and be standing by a stream. This leads to the lovely moment when he actually meets this person, and then proceeds to lay on the charm with a little poem of his own. Her response: "I liked the poem. I`ll marry you." Other strange things include a sequence where the uncle teaches kids at a school the primary colors. In a series of unusual shots, the uncle points to different places, the sky, the clouds, the grain, etc, and then pulls his hands back each time to reveal them covered in the colors he is referring to. The shots don`t make any realistic sense, but are still pretty surprising to see. I also kind of liked the old guy, with his shaky voice, who still speaks with much reverence of youth, much to the chagrin of the old woman. And Gabbeh, the woman of the rug, is an impressive presense, with her deep, dark eyes and blue robes.

Even at a shockingly short 72 minites, Gabbeh is fairly slow and draggy for those not used to its peculiar structure, and old-fashioned storyline. I meant what I said about how certain countries will only let its artists go so far in their art. But, despite that, there is a true tension between the story and how it is told. Gabbeh does have a boldness a slick Hollywood production wouldn`t dare try to gain. Unlike the popular films of the day, Gabbeh does everything it does with only effort and integrity on its side, and for that I suppose we should be grateful.

David Macdonald

David Macdonald's Movie Reviews

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