Directed by Dariush Mehrjui
What defines a man? Or, better yet, does a man define himself, or let others define him? If a man walks the streets and fights criminals, he is a vigilante. Give him a gun and a badge and he is a cop. He is a cop because he fits society’s idea of what a cop should be. Take those things away from him, and he goes back to being just a man. But what if that man depended on society to identify his place in the world? What if he was so used to being a cop that to deny him of a badge and a gun causes him to lose his grasp on who he is? These connections between objects, their purpose, their owners, and society at large have long been a subject of debate. One such arena for discussion is the world of cinema. Few films have examined this existential dilemma better than Dariush Mehrjui’s film The Cow. It centers on a man named Masht Hassan who has the only cow in his entire village. His identity and social status are defined by his ownership of the cow. So the film asks the question of what would happen if one day that source of identity was taken away.
We are immediately informed of the importance of the relationship between Hassan and his cow during the opening credits where we see the two as white silhouettes on a black background. This curious reverse negative creates an eerie atmosphere of that ejects the audience from any semblance of normalcy. Clearly, their relationship is more than just that of an owner and a piece of property.
We soon see Hassan taking his cow to a lake to wash it. We discover that he truly loves his cow and treats it like a small child, baby-talking it and playing with the soap suds. We are led to believe that the cow fills a hole left in Hassan’s heart. Although he is married, he has no sons. He speaks harshly to his wife, only calling her “woman” when he orders her to do something. Does he blame her for not having a child? The movie never addresses this. But there is a definite tension between the couple. And so we see him coddling his cow. At the end of the bath, he even towels her off with his own coat.
It is clear that Hassan is highly respected in his village. When he enters the square, the whole population warmly greets him, some leaning out of windows to welcome him. Hassan feeds off the attention, but he is still concerned with the cow’s safety. She is pregnant and will soon give birth. The thought of owning the only two cows in the village must fill him with an unbridled anticipation. Simply put, his livestock give him prestige. And so right at the start we see that the cow serves two very important roles in Hassan’s identity: it gives him a respected place in society and indulges his paternal instincts.
But one day when Hassan leaves town, something horrible happens. Hassan’s wife starts screaming in the town square. When the villagers come to calm them down, she tells them that Hassan’s cow is dead. They go to investigate. In its small barn, it lays on the ground in a small pool of blood. They are unable to figure out what killed it. Just that morning it had been healthy with a vigorous appetite. There are local bandits in the area that steal from the villagers at night, but why would they strike during the day? And more importantly, why would they kill the only cow instead of taking it? And so, we find the death of the cow as a kind of active MacGuffin; instead of an object that spurs the action forward, it is an action that pushes the plot forward. It doesn’t matter how or why it occurred. The mere fact that it happened at all is enough for the people involved to react.
Panicking, the villagers decide the bury the corpse and lie to Hassan, telling him that it ran away and one of their number is out looking for it. But of course, things do not go over as smoothly when he returns to the village. To put it simply, he has a complete and total mental breakdown when he learns that his cow is missing. Even the combined sympathetic goodwill of the entire village isn’t enough to console him. He starts to act erratically, sitting on the edge of town and looking into the distance with a blank look on his face.
But one day, nobody can find Hassan. They look everywhere for him until they find him in his dead cow’s stall. He is sitting at the back of the stall, facing away from the entrance. He is making strange noises, almost like those of a cow. When they hear this, the village leaders try to tell him that they have found the cow. They yell things like, “She’s fatter than ever,” and, “Thank God, she’s fine. Healthy and strong.” But when he finally turns around, he has a mouth full of hay. He stares at them, chews, and then turns his head and starts to eat more hay. They go in and try to talk to him. But the only thing he will say is, “I am not Hassan. I am his cow.”
Stunned by this turn of events, they try reason with him. But no matter what they tell him, all he will reply is that he is Hassan’s cow. Finally, in a last ditch effort, they try telling him the truth. One of the elders says, “Listen to what I tell you, yesterday your wife came to us in panic and said your cow was dead. We threw your cow in the old well.” When Hassan hears this, he starts to freak out. He yells that thieves are trying to steal him. He yells for Hassan, believing that he is watching out for him on the roof.
The film ends with the villagers tying him up to take him to a hospital. He resists and screams like an animal. His transformation is complete as he wails like a calf as they tie him up with rope. Eventually, the pull him through the rain while whipping him, calling him an animal, and telling him to move. With his beloved cow gone, he has no place in society and no means of self-identification. Maybe it was out of mercy that they abandon him when he breaks away and falls down a hill into the mud. Having become an animal, the only mercy that he can be afforded is to be allowed to die like one.
Not only is Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow a great film, it is one of the most important one’s in Iranian history. It was made during the Iranian Revolution, obviously a time of great political turmoil in Iran. The only reason why it was even distributed was because Ayatollah Khomeini was reported to have liked it, thereby allowing it to be shown in theaters. But even then, it had to be smuggled out of the country in order for it to be shown at the 1971 Venice Film Festival. But from that moment on, the face of Iranian cinema would be forever changed. Many believe that it sparked the Iranian New Wave. But what we do know is that it inspired such legendary directors as Abbas Kiarostami. Mehrjui’s use of realism and symbolism would become defining characteristics of Iranian cinema. And all of these influences can be seen in The Cow. It’s amazing how such a simple story can spark such a great cultural uprising. Like the death of Hassan’s cow, the release of The Cow would create a personal redefinition of its viewer’s sensibilities. Thankfully, instead of driving them insane, it made them realize that Iran had the potential to become one of world cinema’s most powerful voices.