Mohsen Makhmalbaf: The Poetic Trilogy Review
Iranian cinema has a history of stretching the medium beyond mere storytelling, probing deeper into the indefinable and the spiritual side of human experience, finding resonance between the people of the land and the land, although there is undoubtedly also an element of working around censorship laws in this allusiveness. Along with the late Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf has been at the forefront of this type of New Iranian Cinema, but the Makhmalbaf Film House, including daughters Samira and Hana, son Maysam and Mohsen's wife Marzieh have established an industry of their own, extending the reach of their work beyond the confines of national borders for artistic reasons as well as out of political necessity.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf's multi-layered films however are difficult to pin down to a single style or theme, mixing fiction and traditional storytelling with documentary and autobiography, occasionally somewhat self-reflexive and ambiguous in their allegorical content and symbolism, but they are never esoteric or self-absorbed art films. The films collected as 'The Poetic Trilogy' reflect rather a warm humanistic response to people, the lives they lead, to the challenges they face, but they also recognise the role that cinema can to play in opening up a wider range of possibilities than that of mere narrative presentation, finding other 'poetic' ways to express and blend complementary layers of reality that contribute to our understanding of the experience of life.
Gabbeh - 1996
In Gabbeh an old woman and an old man bring a tapestry mat, a gabbeh, down to wash in the stream. In wonder of its beauty, they wonder who made it and what story it tells in its simple image of a boy and a girl riding a white horse over a sea of blue. A beautiful young woman appears, Gabbeh, and tells them that it represents the story of her life. Part of a nomadic family who raise sheep, die wool with the colours of nature and weave them into carpets, Gabbeh is a young woman who is unable to get married until her uncle returns from his wanderings and finds a wife for himself.
Aside from the poetry of the image of a carpet speaking as a woman, Makhmalbaf uses many other poetic images and techniques to illustrate and breathe life and meaning into the story, and for Gabbeh they are to be found in nature, in colours, in the landscape and the place of the people within it. Music too plays a small part in blending all these elements together, in for example the way that Gabbeh's uncle is looking for a wife who sings like a canary, and he has been told he will find her by a stream.
Filled with colour and the most visually arresting imagery, there is symbolism there if you want to consider it, there may be some political commentary on the roles men and women play in Iranian society, but Gabbeh is more poetic than allegorical, celebrating life, love and colour, recognising death but also life beyond death preserved in songs, art, and nature; all of it contained within the art of the cinematic medium itself in the form of Gabbeh.
The Silence - 1998
The Silence is a little more abstract in its style and intentions, but still has a clear narrative line to hang it on, filling it with a mixture of images, sounds and impressions. Under pressure of eviction by their landlord, a young blind boy, Khorshid is sent by his mother to try and obtain the money they need from his employer, a manufacturer of musical instruments. Being blind, Khorshid is able to adjust and tune the instruments to perfect pitch, but with his senses conditioned this way, the young boy is liable to get distracted and wander, following his own inner sense of beauty. He becomes obsessed with the 'ba-ba-ba-bam' of the rent collector's knock, hearing it in the notes played by a musician that echoes the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and ends up fired by his employer.
Evidently the sound design is an important factor in The Silence, and the film is soundtracked to voices, background sounds and music, the film attaining the heightened quality of another reality. The images also follow a difference sense of order, lingering on close-ups, finding a purity of expression in light, colours, sounds, in youth, beauty, music and dance. The trajectory of the film is simple enough, and there's dramatic tension in the days counting down to Khorshid and his mother being evicted, as well as the daily hazards of a blind boy finding his way through the world.
Allegorically or poetically, you can take the film purely on face value and be amazed by its own sense of beauty and its unconventional approach to normal cinematic principles. In some ways it's an exploration, learning to trust your senses, inner impulses, but also to be wary that there is a danger in being out of step with the dictates of the prevailing order. What is also striking about the film's Tajikisatan locations is how it shows a very different and more colourful world from the one that we are now more accustomed to seeing in Iranian films. It gives even more an impression of a world that we have lost and forgotten how to reach, too distracted by the noise of the modern world. The contrast between 1998's The Silence and the underground Iran music scene in Bahman Ghobadi's 2009 film Who Knows about Persian Cats? is striking.
The Gardener - 2012
If the world has changed and there's no going back, is there perhaps another way by which we can get in touch with the poetry of life? Mohsen Makhmalbaf's 2012 documentary film The Gardener explores the beliefs of the Bahá'í, a little known religious faith that originated in Iran 170 years ago. Despite being a faith of peace, based on principles of non-violence and doing no harm to others, and despite not being in conflict with any other religion, the Bahá'í have nonetheless been persecuted for their beliefs.
The central tenets of the Bahá'í faith are explored by the director not in any conventional way and not unexpectedly The Gardener is by no means a conventional documentary. Working alongside his son, Maysam, Mohsen Makhmalbaf allows the camera's gaze to wander over the beautiful gardens of the religion's base in Israel, asking questioning about the backgrounds of the faith's followers, but also simply observing the means by which they interact with nature; cultivating, tending, pruning and 'communing' with plants and trees as a metaphor for their faith.
Or perhaps not so much a metaphor as a means of practising their faith, which is something that clearly appeals to the poetry in Makhmalbaf's filmmaking style, where the medium can also be the message. There's a little bit of manufactured conflict between father and son over the value of religion, but the director manages to find some beautiful imagery in the colours, in sounds, in music, in the bird-eye perspective of the flight of a bird over the gardens. The closing sequence of the replication that occurs when he holds up a mirror to the gardens is also a powerful poetic image, a recurrent motif in his films, since what is cinema but the holding up of a mirror to the world?
Mohsen Makhmalbaf: The Poetic Trilogy is released by Arrow Films under their Arrow Academy line. It appears to be released on Blu-ray format only. The Blu-ray release is a two-disc set, with Gabbeh and The Silence on Disc One, and The Gardener and most of the extra features on Disc Two. The release is region free.
Image and Sound
The two older films in the set, Gabbeh and The Silence have been given brand new 2K restorations, The Gardener is digitally shot and given a full HD transfer. The appearance of Gabbeh and The Silence, as you would hope, are beautifully clear and bursting with colour. There's a slight tint of yellowish discolouration, age fading or perhaps not quite full contrast, but both of the earlier films still look striking, presented at a ratio of 1.85:1. The HD transfers are crystal clear with only a few stray dustspots visible on The Silence. The soundtracks - vital in both films - are perfectly clear, the original 1.0 mono tracks in uncompressed LPCM managing to dynamically translate the complex soundscapes of each of the films. The 1.78:1 transfer of The Gardener is as clear and precise as you would expect for a recent film shot on digital cameras. The 2.0 stereo soundtrack is also delivered in uncompressed LPCM. All films have optional English subtitles.
Disc One contains an Audio Commentary for Gabbeh by Godfrey Cheshire. On Disc Two, there's a detailed hour long conversation about all three films between Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jonathan Romney in Poetry in Motion, which also looks at the films in the wider context of the director's career and the personal issues and background that contribute to his filmmaking style. Mohsen with Closed Eyes is a shorter but revealing 16-minute interview with Makhmalbaf on The Silence, filmed at the Venice Festival in 1998. A Stills Gallery and Original Trailers for the films are also on Disc Two. The initial first print of the release comes with a booklet, lavishly illustrated with colour stills, with an introduction to the films by Mohsen Makhmalbaf; a deeper look at the imagery, symbolism, nature and sounds in the three films by academic Negar Mottahedeh; and a 1997 archive feature on Makhmalbaf's films from Film Comment by Godfrey Cheshire that considers the different phases or cycles of the director's work up to that point.
Personally, I find that there is something poetic in all the films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a striving to break down barriers of conventional thought and find new means of expressing a deeper truth, but there is a freshness and purity to the three films in The Poetic Trilogy. Certainly at least in the two earlier films Gabbeh and The Silence with their glorious use of colour, image and sound, there is more of a sense of a world that has been lost, but similar techniques are used in The Gardener to see if there is another way of accessing that world. Simple and beautiful, there's nothing difficult or challenging about Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Poetic Trilogy other than the challenge of allowing yourself to look at cinema differently, and through them perhaps seeing the world differently too.