Release Date(s)1996/1998/2012 (August 28, 2018)
Studio(s)MK2 Productions/Sanaye Dasti/Makhmalbaf Productions/Makhmalbaf Film House (Arrow Academy)
- Film/Program Grade: See Below
- Video Grade: See Below
- Audio Grade: See Below
- Extras Grade: B
- Overall Grade: B-
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the itinerant Iranian filmmaker, has made 31 movies in eleven different countries. His incorporation of a Sufi sensualism, with a great deal of focus on color, sound, and lyrical imagery, as well as the inclusion of themes that ran afoul of the religious conservatism of the Khamenei government, led to his being banned by his home country. Nonetheless, he continues to make films that explore the life of his erstwhile culture. Arrow Academy has gathered some of his work together for The Poetic Trilogy.
Gabbeh is elliptical and confusing. For a good 95% of the run time, I wasn’t quite sure what was going on. For the most part, I accepted this, because the visuals were beautiful, captivating really. The use of color is a theme throughout the movie, in the rugs that a nomadic tribe weaves, in their clothing, and in the undulating natural territory around them. Ultimately, I think (but don’t hold me to this) that this is a story about a daughter chafing against the control that her roving family and lifestyle places upon her. But the main character may also have been a carpet. It’s hard to say. It wasn’t terribly satisfying as narratives go, but some of the visuals and the emotions they evoke are quite affecting.
By comparison, The Silence is a much more engaging film for a mainstream audience than Gabbeh. The film creates an extremely engaging visual and aural world, centering on two quite charming children, a blind young boy named Korshid and his friend, a young girl named Nadareh. Korshid needs to work to help support his single mother, and has a job tuning instruments. But he needs to take a long bus ride every day to get there, and frequently gets waylaid when he happens across a new and fascinating sound. The instrument-maker’s ward Nadareh spends time with Korshid, trying to keep him on track and to experience the world the way that he does. Director Mohsen Makhmalbaf either has an incredible eye for his own location shoots, or an amazing scout. Groves of trees, walls lined with wagon wheels – it’s all really exquisite to look at. The film’s theme, how Korshid experiences the world, induces the viewer to pay special attention to the soundscape – which is rich and detailed.
The Gardener doesn’t have a story in the way that the other two films do. It is an extended meditation on the Baha’I faith, shot by Makhmalbaf and his son, who is filming a look at religion from a more skeptical mindset. Their chosen imagery focuses on various practitioners of the faith, and their experiences, interspersed with narrative read by the directors. The son’s meditations on the similarities and tensions between the three major religions, and the mechanisms by which they control their adherents, are by far the most interesting portions of the film. Also interesting is the sort of meta-narrative of the father and son filming each other. There are some striking images and interesting people, but for the most part, it feels like an interminable slog, with long, droning shots of people being still, stretching out their arms, and experiencing something interior, which is not really illuminated that well for us an audience.
Gabbeh is presented on Blu-ray via a fresh scan of a 35mm internegative element. It definitely has a soft, filmic look to it, with a light sheen of grain that is pleasing to the eye. The entire film is shot in bright, daylit outdoor settings. As such, there’s not much material by which to evaluate shadow detail and overall contrast. The colors are presented in a visually arresting way. Occasionally, some scenes seem a bit washed out, and the opening credits do show signs of digital noise. However, there was no obvious banding, posterization, or moiré effects. In many ways, it’s similar to many Criterion releases of films from the same era. Audio is presented in a clear LPCM mono track, and is adequate to the task.
The transfer for The Silence, which also comes with a new scan, but of a 35mm interpositive element, looks slightly better than the first film, with some deeper blacks, more consistent dynamic range, and no apparent washouts. There’s also a pleasant filmic look with a consistent grain structure. The LPCM mono track here seems more lively, though this is probably due to the ambient noise and music-heavy soundscape. A true surround track could have really added to things here.
Although The Gardener was filmed the most recently, it was shot handheld using digital camcorders, and as such, is the worst-looking film in this set. The resolution is there for the most part, but the exposure values are blown out almost entirely throughout the entire runtime. Daylit scenes show a sky that is blinding white, instead of filled with clouds or blue sky. The decision to shoot handheld also leads to a jumpiness that is quite distracting when viewing the film on a big screen. The LPCM stereo track here delivers the narration and dialogue quite clearly.
Each film also comes with a set of optional English subtitles.
GABBEH (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C/B-/C
THE SILENCE (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): B+/B+/B
THE GARDENER (FILM/VIDEO/AUDIO): C-/D/B
On Disc One (which contains Gabbeh and The Silence), Gabbeh features a full commentary track with film critic Godfrey Cheshire; U.S. and French trailers for Gabbeh and a French trailer for The Silence; and 2 still galleries. On Disc Two (which contains The Gardener), there’s Poetry In Motion, an interview with the director by film critic Jonathan Romney; Mohsen with Closed Eyes, a making-of interview for The Silence; the trailer for The Gardener; a still gallery; and an insert booklet which includes essays by Cheshire on Gabbeh and by Negar Mottahedeh on The Poetic Trilogy as a whole.
Ultimately, whether you enjoy The Poetic Trilogy depends on your level of interest in the Iranian culture and independent film. I consider myself mildly interested in the former and moderately interested in the latter. To my mind, The Silence is by far the most successful film in this set, with some truly indelible imagery and some very winsome performances by its child leads. I don’t understand why The Gardener was included, since it lacks narrative elements and symbolism for the most part, and the release would have been stronger without it. As a set, The Poetic Trilogy presents relatively strong value, and the quality of the restorations of the first two films is up to par with Criterion’s output of independent films.
- Matthew Weflen