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Contemporary Iranian cinema has seized international attention in recent years with a style derived more from Rossellini, Godard, and Brecht than from ancient Persian tradition. Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh is an exception, both for Iranian film and for the writer/director. Inspired by the traditional carpets woven by tribal women in isolated southeast Iran, this pictorially vivid film glistens like a gem-embellished medieval Persian manuscript come to life.
That’s appropriate, because the film’s heroine is, apparently, summoned from an image woven into a carpet. The peacock blue-clad Gabbeh (Shaghayegh Djodat) appears when an old couple (Hossein and Roghieh Moharami) begin to wash their gabbeh, a bright blue carpet, in a small pool at an oasis. Traditionally, gabbehs tell stories about their weavers, and Gabbeh has a tale, too. The young beauty laments that she wants to marry her suitordepicted in the film and on the carpet as a distant figure on horsebackbut that her father always has a reason why she must wait: Her uncle (Abbas Sayahi) must be married first, then her mother must give birth, then her sister-in-law is ill. Perhaps her only choice is to elope, which would be a serious affront to her family. Indeed, Gabbeh says that her father will kill her if she leaves without his blessing.
Figures on a carpet, of course, only suggest the outline of narrative, and Gabbeh is equally mythic and allusive. Originally conceived as a documentary about the heavy-wool carpets woven by the nomadic Ghashghai tribe, the film captures the daily existence of sheep- and goat-herders on the move through harsh mountains and desert. Yet the film is also lyrical and impressionistic, juxtaposing documentary-style footage of traditional wool dying (a vanishing art revived by Sayahi, a retired teacher) with a poetic sequence in which the uncle literally plucks color from earth, water, and sky. In its own distinctively folkloric way, Gabbeh does as much with primary colors as Godard’s newly restored Contempt. (Like Godard, Makhmalbaf also toys with cinematic vocabulary; at one point, a carpet is rolled out, filling the screen with a new image as if it were a wipe.)
The film’s stylization, bold hues, and reverence for folk tradition suggest such Eastern European fabulists as Sergei Paradjanov and Miklós Jancsó, but that’s hardly what’s expected of Makhmalbaf. A former revolutionary who was imprisoned by the shah’s regime at 17 for stabbing a policeman, the director grew up in the care of a grandmother who taught him that moviegoing was a sin punished by eternity in hell. Makhmalbaf was delivered from prison, where he had been tortured, by the Islamic revolution, and became a novelist, playwright, and filmmaker. His early work (which he now disowns) supported Iran’s Islamic leadership, but he came to see the new regime as just as oppressive as the old. Many of his recent films have been banned; even Gabbeh, which barely addresses contemporary Iran, was suppressed for a time, although it was eventually shown in Tehran after its success in Europe. The director has suggested that he will make no more films in his native country.
Like Paradjanov and Jancsó, Makhmalbaf lives under a regime that can be threatened merely by tradition and color. (The Ghashghai women cover their limbs and hair, but set off their faces with sparkling sequins rather than black veils.) For a document that some classify as seditious, Gabbeh is remarkably joyous, with several kinetic sequences scored to the sinuous, exuberant music of Iranian composer and setar player Houssein Alizadeh (who performed brilliantly at Gaston Hall in April). Cryptic and beguilingly mysterious, the film is suitably transitory; it runs a mere, shimmering 75 minutes.
Well before 187’s alarmist summation, it’s clear that the movie is a cry for help. An exceptionally discouraged view of American high-school education, the film takes its update of Blackboard Jungle quite literally, scoring the travails of a beleaguered teacher to a hectic mix of worldbeat, triphop, new age, and dub. Even with your eyes closed, you can’t miss 187’s fevered prophecy of alien-nation.
Former teacher Scott Yagemann’s script is a lot simpler than its subtext. Trevor Garfield (Samuel L. Jackson) is an upbeat, well-meaning Bed-Stuy science teacher when he’s stabbed repeatedly by a thuggish student who first threatened him by writing “187” (police code for homicide) all over his textbook. Rather than choosing one of the sensible optionsabandoning the profession or looking for a more placid community in which to pursue itGarfield turns up a year later as a substitute teacher in the San Fernando Valley, where his new charges are just as savage as his old ones (if a bit more likely to speak Spanish). Garfield tries to help his students, especially Rita (Karina Arroyave), a “slut” with alleged literary gifts. But he soon finds himself at war with tough guys Cesar (Clifton González González) and Benny (Lobo Sebastian) and their followers, including slumming white kid Stevie (Jonah Rooney).
Teaching in a dilapidated bungalow outside the main school building, Garfield is isolated both physically and spiritually. He gets to know only two other teachers, perky blond computer instructor Ellen Henry (Kelly Rowan), a possible romantic interest, and scruffy, creepy Dave Childress (John Heard in yet another turn as a reprobate WASP). The administrators don’t support the teachers, and seem concerned only that Garfield’s combative style might elicit a lawsuitsomething his students regularly threaten. Garfield contemplates turning to vigilantism, and his actions ultimately lead to a showdown so overwrought that it’s explicitly derived from another lurid Hollywood downer. (No scholarship is required here: The finale’s inspiration is shown playing on TV in an earlier scene.)
With its low angles, 360-degree pans, and flashes of pure white screen, 187 is artier than director Kevin Reynolds’ previous effort, which the press kit describes as “an international box office sensation.” (That would be Waterworld, which has also been called other things.) But the director’s flourishes have no stylistic integrity. Reynolds shoots one scene from the viewpoint of a black-and-white video surveillance camera mounted in a corner, but quickly forgets the camera’s fixed position; within seconds, he’s rendering extreme close-ups in the same grainy black-and-white look.
Still, the director’s sloppiness isn’t the issue. The movie’s most striking aspect is its theme, which will be familiar to Washingtonians from the Mount Pleasant riot. Unlike Dangerous Minds, which took the venerable white-woman’s-burden approach, 187 includes only a few Euro-American characters, and they’re little more than bystanders. Instead, this is a pitched battle between the recently established African-American middle class and insurgent, disrespectful Mexican-Americans. The scenario anticipates the imminent shift (if current demographic trends hold) in which Latinos will supplant blacks as the United States’ largest minority.
Perhaps that’s not what Yagemann and Reynolds intended, but Chris Douridas’ score certainly threatens the listener with an ominous other. There’s very little Latin music, perhaps because that didn’t sound sufficiently foreign. Enlisting trendy Britain’s musical exoticism, Douridas (who also consulted on Heat’s eclectic soundtrack) juxtaposes DJ Shadow, Madredeus, and Massive Attack’s brooding “Karmacoma” with sitar, Islamic chanting, and lots of dub. While 187’s script becomes distracted by lofty pronouncements and routine melodrama, the score continues to deliver the movie’s paranoiac message: Look out, it’s not even our country anymore.CP