Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Mohsen Makhmalbaf's masterful 1996 film Gabbeh is about nothing so much as color. Taking as its theme the mantra "life is color, love is color," the film establishes the truth of this equation by building a visual program which continually fills the screen with vibrant splashes of reds, yellows, blues and greens (seen in clothing, flowers, fabrics) and which corresponds to the hopeful possibility of love that drives the picture's narrative before giving way to a drained, monochromatic palette in the final section when the film's world becomes marked by sexual repression and death.

The film, an imaginative fantasy, begins with an elderly couple washing their gabbeh (a decorative rug) only to find the central figure in the design (a beautiful young woman, who like her older counterpart, is draped in bright blue cloth) come to life and narrate her story of thwarted love, a story which the film then literalizes. A member of a nomadic tribe whose family gives nominal approval to her romance with an outsider (seen always on horseback and always from a distance and designated by an ominous wolf's howl) while devising a series of obstacles to perpetually defer her moment of consummation. Intercut with the story are documentary segments (the film was originally intended as a non-fiction picture) detailing the making of the gabbehs - a process of wool gathering, dying and weaving - and which emphasize the vivid hues of the product, a work of art - like the film - whose chief attribute is an absolute insistence on color.

In Makhmalbaf's picture, this insistence is given its clearest expression in a central segment where the young woman's uncle teaches a classroom of young children about color, a lesson which doubles as a demonstration of the transformative powers of art. As the uncle points out features of the surrounding landscape and asks the students to identify the color of each item, he reaches out his hand and brings back samples of the utmost vibrancy. In the case of the more tangible items (flowers and grass), he returns the actual object, in the case of more ethereal quantities (the sun, the sky), his hands return dyed in yellow and blue paint. As the uncle extends his reach, Makhmalbaf films his hand grasping air in front of generically rendered landscapes. By this abstract signification, the director makes clear the magical nature of the uncle's offerings. Since the uncle doesn't actually appear to be making physical contact with any of the items, he accomplishes instead a mystical reification, creating objects of an impossibly vivid expression out of mere conceit. As his character gives concrete visual representation to the abstract concept of color through a unique process of transformation, so Makhmalbaf effects a comparative conversion through the aesthetic rendering of his filmic landscapes.

As long as the narrative's central romance remains hopeful, the film retains its remarkable vividness, but when the woman's father leads the family on a nomadic expedition and prohibits her, at gunpoint, from joining her lover, the screen suddenly sheds its vibrancy and becomes dominated by the neutral colors of the landscapes the family covers - the gray of sand dunes and the white of snow - with only the occasional red of campfires to provide any visual variety. When the woman finally flees her repressive surroundings and joins her lover, the latent threat of violence becomes actualized. As the embodiment of both the violence and the repression, the father is noticeably identified with a monochromatic visual scheme. In contrast to the vibrant clothes of the tribe's women, he remains garbed in light khaki. The final section of the film, the only section in which he registers as a central presence, is also the only segment in which the landscape remains untransformed by color, as if his repressive blight had spread to the surrounding environment. As the father threatens both "love" and "life," so, it follows, per the film's central equation, that color must likewise vanish. But not before leaving us with a presentation of remarkable visual richness and making a strong case for the central importance of aesthetic perception in the filmgoing process.

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