A seminal film, The Cow is a clever psychological drama that heralded progressive, even dissenting cinema in Iran. I really love a lot of modern directors from that country – Panahi’s Crimson Gold is a favorite, and other big names like Kiarostami, Majidi, and Makhmalbaf make wonderful work – so it’s pretty awesome to see an important predecessor.
Dariush Mehrjui’s style isn’t showy, but it’s also not bland. There are some very pretty, time-stopping moments in The Cow, the story of a villager, Hassan (Ezzatolah Entezami) who starts acting like a cow after his beloved animal is killed.
One thing that I really like about it is the depiction of everyday, daily life. It’s nearly impossible to not describe this to Neorealism. So I won’t do much with that beyond make that statement. Moments like this one, showing the tea service coming through a small window in a hut-
And jokes like this one, where, if you look closely, you can see that one of the men is coughing from the smoke coming from that same hole in the wall-
Just feel comfortable and lived-in. No explanation (look everyone, this is how our tea house is different than yours). It’s just guys on a weekday afternoon.
Similarly, the beginning of the film gives us a lot of tight shots introducing the villagers:
Many of these people aren’t important characters in the story. The point is to show the faces that make up this small town in Iran, and also to get a sense of the tenuous bond that these people hold. See how they’re all looking frame left? Even before we see what they’re watching the sense of voyeurism is there. It’s nearly paranoid. And if you look at the eventual story and how trust around the village disintegrates, it’s not hard to read that as a parable for 1969 Iran.
Some of the moments that are a little flashier for Mehrjui include a haunting, slow-motion close-up of the dead cow, it’s face pressed awkwardly against the wall of a well where it’s to be buried-
And these close-ups of Hassan, his face and the location flared by the overexposed sunlight flooding in from above, he looking as helpless as his cow in the shot above:
Much of The Cow also reminds me of Killer of Sheep released nearly 10 years later. Both have a psychological premise, a male character whose downfall revolves in some way around animals, have a supporting cast that isn’t always supportive, and, though Killer of Sheep takes place in the city, have a small town, allegorical feel.
Mehrjui’s got some blocking chops, too, demonstrated in this wide-shot where Hassan, still unaware of his cow’s death, walks rapidly from background to foreground and left to right. Mehrjui’s camera dollies back and then tracks quickly to the right with him:
Trees pass in the foreground before Hassan hears the news. He finally stops and turns, and Mehrjui frames him as a near-silhouette, the bearer of bad news tiny in the background:
It’s a beautifully orchestrated shot that quickly goes from really energetic – almost frenetic – to deathly still, and that ending frame holds a lot of tension, particularly in the looming foreground and deep focus.
The Cow gets pretty dramatic towards the end, when Hassan ends up bound and being pulled – like a cow – through the rain and mud:
It’s a despondent ending, made all the more effective because the villagers had just banded together in a previous scene to defeat an outside enemy. Their victory, The Cow seems to say, is short-lived and short-sighted.