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Carpet Ride

Dye Hard: The nomadic tribespeople in 'Gabbeh' gather flowers to make dyes for their colorful clothing.

Iranian film weaves a magical tale

By Richard von Busack

OLD MARRIED COUPLES sometimes talk to each other through a third party, an inanimate object or a cat (often an inanimate object in itself). So maybe the magical-realist conceit of Gabbeh, an Iranian film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, may not be too much of a strain to accept. Camping in a pasture, an old man and woman are grousing tenderly about which of them is going to wash their carpet in a cold stream; while the carpet is rinsed, a woman emerges from it, calling herself Gabbeh (Shaghayeh Djodat). "Gabbeh" is the word for a kind of hand-woven carpet used by nomads as a bedroll.

Gabbeh tells of a young girl's frustration as she is prohibited from marrying by her father. Her marriage is postponed again and again by incidents in the life of her tribe: migrations, other marriages, births and deaths. This is how Makhmalbaf examines the fabric, as it were, of the lives of these wandering weavers, and rarely have simple lives looked so bewitching on screen. The nomads dress so colorfully as to make the Gypsies look like the Amish. Gathering the flowers that carpet their pastures for dye, they can study he nature of color as they work.

If you've longed for the compositions of the old Western cattle-drive movies, you might find something to like in Gabbeh. But unlike Westerns, this is a strongly feminist movie. Weaving is a woman's job, and so the director stays with the women throughout. Even the tyrannical father has but a few lines. While it's the rule of a daughter's obedience to her father that causes Gabbeh to suffer, this film isn't a weeper. The flash-forwards and the incidents of the tribe's story make the delayed marriage a narrative thread, not a bore.

Makhmalbaf is the premier filmmaker in Iran. His last film seen here, at the 1997 San Francisco International Film Festival, was A Moment of Innocence. Almost too good to be true, A Moment of Innocence tells the real-life story of how the director was reunited with the policeman he stabbed as a student rebel during the last days of the Shah. Both of these films are comedies of a sort. Makhmalbaf's fatalism doesn't overwhelm the richness of life he observes but rather spices it. Gabbeh--so different from A Moment of Innocence but just as fascinating--shows that Makhmalbaf is not just a great filmmaker, but a great filmmaker with a great range.

Gabbeh (Unrated; 75 min.), directed and written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Mahmoud Kalari and starring Shaghayeh.

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From the Nov. 6-12, 1997 issue of Metro.

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