Madness and Surrealism in Iranian Film Art Activism

Madness or insanity is the freest in form and nuanced in detail when being represented on the screen intertextually. Madness in its nature is fragmented, absurd, and irrational, thus hard to be presented in a digestible manner. Therefore, the cinematic representation of madness is a fictionalized, more linear version of the irregular. Madness defies the logic of mainstream society. According to Focault, the medicalization and institutionalization of madness began in the eighteenth century when in the “age of reason”, madness was perceived as threatening to social order, moral and otherwise. Insanity as a psychological term is a result of an outburst; in the language of film, moments of exhibiting madness manifest themselves as dramatic turning points in storylines, as well as turning points in aesthetic, style and voice of the films. Surrealism emerges as a common approach to translate this abnormal psychological state in audiovisual language.

Cinema in Iran has been the most influential and popular art form that deals directly with representations and boldly with reflections on socio-political problems. The theme madness is never absent in pre- and post-revolutionary Iranian cinema, expressing or implying the filmmakers’ political views across two drastically different repressive regimes. This essay will focus on The Cow (Dariush Mehrjui, 1969), which is the pioneer of Iranian New Wave cinema, The Marriage of the Blessed (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1989), made in the first decade after the Islamicate revolution, and Hamoun (Dariush Mehrjui, 1990), by the same director of The Cow but showing a modern Iran that is completely different from the village in The Cow.

The Cow is a film about Hassan, the only cow owner in a poor Iranian village, who has an incredible, emotional bonding to his cow. One day, while Hassan is out for business, his wife finds the cow mysteriously dead in the cowshed, lying in blood. She cries and asks for help from villagers because she knows the news is going to be devastating to Hassan. Hassan’s friend Eslam leads a group of villagers to configure stories to tell Hassan, to which Hassan responds with his hollow stare and refusal to accept the reality. By the time villagers finally tell Hassan that his cow died and they buried it, Hassan’s psychological well-being is completely destroyed. He never leaves his cowshed, and behaves just like a cow -- eating hay, and harming himself whenever the villagers try to reason with him. He tells them he’s not Hassan, but his cow. At the end of the film, Hassan is being taken by Eslam and the villagers to the city to see doctors. On the way there, the villagers start to beat Hassan just to speed him up, which ends up with Hassan’s escape and his eventual death in the barren land.

In the film, “the Bolouris” are a crucial symbol that deeply affect every villager. They are the distant predators that steal, rob and kill livestocks from the villagers. The Bolouris are unpredictable, uncontrollable and mysterious. On screen, they are always presented in stylized posture, dark uniforms, and standing on faraway mountains. Just with their appearance, we see a sharp contrast with the Muslim villagers. The Bolouris are seen as the feared outsiders -- the foreign backers of the repressive Pahlavi regime, maybe. Or, the Bolouris can also be savak, the Shah’s secret police whose footprints can never be traced.

The madness of the protagonist, Hassan, begins to surface at one night, when the village is awaken by his scream. He runs through the street, moaning loudly. Men in the village leave their beds, some armed with clubs, and are afraid that it is the Bolouris. Mehrjui shot the scene in low light, and Hassan’s face is never revealed, hiding in the shadows, building suspense and almost tricking the audience into siding with the villagers. It is  a metaphoric protest from Hassan, of living aimlessly in the enclosed and stagnant environment, after losing his beloved cow. That Hassan is mistaken of the Bolouris, expresses not only the feeling of being constantly under attack, but the self-inflicting consequences of living under terror.

The turning of Hassan’s sanity, which emerges quite suddenly, doesn’t logically make sense in the structure of the film. Mehrjui did not choose to ease the audience into his transformation. As a result, there is a heightened tone to his insanity which is allegorical and fantastical. This metaphorical insanity makes Hassan’s condition a rebellion against the village and its inability to resist. It is an insanity that can be related to the Iran at the time, capturing the fear of the outsider, and oppressive political state.

The Marriage of the Blessed was made one year after the Iran-Iraq war during the first decade of post-revolution time. The story unfolds with the protagonist Haji, who was a journalist that went to Iran-Iraq war and now works in a photo studio after the war. He is unlikely to recover from his wartime trauma, despite the enormous love his fiance Mehri gave to him. The film follows Haji’s dealing with his PTSD as he goes out for photographic assignments in order to restart his career, seeing the condition of a modern Iran. In the meantime, the other plot line follows Mehri’s plan for marriage: her privileged parents want her to marry a rich suitor, but Mehri is deeply in love with Haji, even though he is mentally very unstable. As Haji and Mehri’s relationship develops, they accompany each other taking photos on the street, capturing destitute, addiction and crimes out of despair on the streets of Tehran and in the slums. Unfortunately for Haji, none of his photographs of the underclass in modern Tehran is published by newspapers. When Haji and Mehri are having their wedding reception, Haji goes up the stage and says, “eat the food robbed from poor people. Robbed food are delicious.” He repeats the phrase over and over, like he’s chanting a revolutionary slogan, waving his fist in the air. He then shouts “fire, fire” again and again, while shaking his head frantically up on the stage, until others take him down the stage. Afterwards, Haji is then sent back to the mental hospital we saw in the beginning, followed by him escaping from there onto the street. He ends up being no different from the homeless people he once photographed, as an unknown photographer takes a photo of him, lying on the street.

Madness is expressed in The Marriage of the Blessed more consequentially and empathetically, while madness in The Cow feels more forced and artistically constructed. This is a result of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s frequent use of subjective point of view to show the protagonist’s inner psychological state. For example, the opening scene where our viewpoint follows a doctor’s medication cart entering into a clinically white room of a psychiatric hospital serves as an excellent transition, transporting us audience into the world of the veterans’. When the door opens, we see a circus of hospitalized veterans, theatrically occupying every corner of the space, shouting and fighting. Before we feel entertained by the comedic quality of this really sad scene, we are transformed into their mental space -- a hectic battlefield that they once fought on. The quick cutting of the flashbacks further deepens the emulation of the veterans’ heightened neurotic mental state. We are able to understand and empathize with their “madness” through the digestion of the cinematic language used.

Along similar lines, the following scene of Haji and Mehri sitting in a Mercedes-Benz on their way home also externalizes Haji’s hallucinations and flashbacks. In the many recurring shots here, we see in the foreground a huge Mercedes-Benz logo on the front of the car as the car drives, in front of it, are Khomeini’s anti-capitalist slogans, which forms an impossible, ironic image. From the reverse shots of Haji’s close-up, we understand that this is again Haji’s flashback. As Naficy points out, Makhmalbaf “takes the spectators deeper into both the fevered inner world” of Haji and the “decaying moneyed social world in which he must operate.”  

To approach a character in very frequent point of view shots is further supported by Haji’s occupation -- a photographer. In the realist, documentary-style sequence of Haji photographing people he sees on the street in Tehran at night, we see stills taken by Haji shown to us. At these moments, Haji’s photographic lenses and Makhmalbaf's cinematographic lenses merge into one. The still photos are cold reminders of how social justice as one of the most important goals of the revolution has been forgotten and how Iranian society is rapidly moving in a worrisome direction. The madness of Haji here becomes less and less about what he has experienced at the war but more about what enrages him -- as the wedding speech in the film remarks, “Haji’s camera is the anxious eye of the revolution.”

Makhmalbaf uses Haji, this “mad man”, as a surrogate for his own concerns, because Haji is literally the person who can see what others cannot see, especially in images of human suffering. And just because of Hadi’s madness, the film gets to boldly exhibit shocking social injustice and juxtaposition, all coming from an extremely subjective point of view, yet allowing it to reveal more truth under the strictly controlled censorship system.

In the crucial scene where Haji goes up on the stage to give a speech at his wedding ceremony, his madness culminates into an intense hysteria. He shouts and chants and spins his head frantically in the air until he’s brought down the stage by others. At this time, Mamali, Mehri’s brother who is very much mentally challenged comes up to the stage and tries to imitate what Haji has done. The juxtaposed treatment of the two characters in the film to an extent separates them two and their madnesses -- Haji is comparatively very relatable and complex. He is just one of the many victims of the despondent reality after the revolution, representing a collective trauma and reflection on the past actions. This strategy is seen in The Cow as well.

In Hamoun, the story of a couple in a seemingly more fortunate situation is told also through surrealism and a certain degree of madness. The plot follows Hamid Hamoun, a salesman who is trying hard to finish his PhD thesis. In the middle of his mid-life crisis where he tries to find meaning to his life, Hamid is confronted by his wife, demanding a divorce. While his wife Mahshid is trying to accomplish different things in life, expressing herself through art, Hamid constrains her and treats her like his outlet for anger and insecurity. Hamid later realizes that Mahshid’s mother is trying to put him into a psychiatric ward and marry Mahshid to a wealthy, more supportive man Azivi. In the midst of all these chaos, Hamid attempts vigorously to meet his mentor Ali, whom he gives great respect and love. Later in the story, Hamid visits his grandma’s and takes a rifle from there. He attempts to kill his wife with the rifle but eventually fails. Mahshid, ironically, is living a good life on her own after leaving him. After this failed murder, Hamid attempts suicide by droning himself in the sea. We then see a surreal sequence on the beach where Hamid’s acquaintances and relatives all forgive him and console him. After this harmonious fantasy, Hamid wakes up in the boat -- he’s rescued by his mentor Ali.

The opening and ending of the film create a bookend that is a surreal spectacle and a peak into Hamid’s cryptic subconscious and things that we don’t really know about him from the narrative of the film. In the beginning of the movie, we see Hamid walking on the beach alone. The voice-over tells us that we are in his dream. We then see allegorical figures dressed in different kinds of costumes dancing around, like a parade and a wedding. The characters then stop in front of a big movie screen, watching themselves being projected on the screen. This scene might be a reflective moment on the act of cinematic representation of dreams, madness, and consciousness; or it might be drawing an analogy of cinema and human subconscious. However, all of this is done in a half measure, since it’s never elaborated and similar approaches never appear again later in the film. In the middle of the dream sequence, we see a demonic figure on the other side of the crowd speaking to Mahshid, dressed formally, like in a bride gown. He says, “Come. Don’t forget your role, you must feel it deeply.” Mahshid then leaves with that demonic man. In the context of this film, this demonic figure seems to be representing the malicious male psyche that exist collectively in Iranian men. Although self-aware of its vile intentions, this scene is read as nostalgic of the dated, oppressed social status of Iranian women and the patriarchal narrative of societal “roles”. Hamid is an Iranian man living in the modernized, Islamicate Tehran and is married to a well-educated, self-assuring woman. After years of marriage, his wife Mahshid find Hamid’s pessimism, selfishness and dominance in the relationship to be a negative influence for her to advance in life. She expresses these thoughts in her action of demanding a divorce. Hamid, suddenly being reminded of his inability to nurture this important relationship while worrying about his academic progress, finds his wife an obstacle in completing his PhD. In his dream, he deals with his weakness by blaming his wife for all that is wrong with his life. The collective predicament of the male psyche is given agency in the context of rapid modernization and women’s rights movements. Because it is Hamid’s dream, the thoughts can be crazy, ridiculous, and even immoral -- madness manifests itself in the form of human subconscious or dreaming in the very first scene we see in Hamoun.

This surrealist style appears quite frequently throughout to express certain societal concerns and criticism -- halfway through the film, another absurd scene from Hamid’s imagination gives voice to the problems in the seemingly efficient societal system. In the scene, Hamid’s boss gets mad at him for not reading one business report because he has problems with exploiting cheap labor in third world countries. He asks the boss, “(Countries) are drowning like a bunch of ants in the swamp of technology. All for comfort’s sake. What about spirituality? What about love?” He is commenting on countries like Japan, Korea, and the Philippines, yet it’s also addressing Iran’s modern condition. His boss then turn into a samurai, robotically shouting in a stereotypical Japanese manner. Then the office door opens as the blue smoke gets in, a stereotypical Iranian fighter starts a battle with the samurai. The brief battle ends with samurai’s head being cut off. The last thing he expresses before he dies is how life is short compare to the history of the world and that life is only an illusion. The whole sequence is assorted with reaction shots from Hamid, who is surprised but not too much by what he’s seen. Undoubtedly, the Japanese samurai in this surreal sequence represents the face of modernization and the powerful foreignness that is reshaping Iran economically. The gory victory of the Iranian fighter, although comedic, expresses the voice of the Iranian people in the midst of socioeconomic changes -- as Naficy comments, “despite the surface of modernity, she/he is not a modern individual.”

In the very scene after the beginning dream sequence, we see Hamid having an argument with a lawyer. Afterwards, he asks himself where his weakness comes from. The film Hamoun seems to delve into that feeling of powerlessness and centers the narrative on when beautiful things, such as love and marriage, are being taken away from Hamid. He never has control over it, besides he has the absolute right in the Islamicate Iranian society to deny the divorce that his wife demands. Towards the end of the movie, the scene where Hamid tries to kill his wife who does not love him anymore shows how far his madness takes him in action. Dariush Mehrjui, the director who also directed The Cow, presents us a vision of Iran that has greatly advanced after 21 years; but the fear never seems to go away. Only that the distant enemy has become the most intimate one, right within a household. The blame is now on the change rather than the unknownness -- from love to not love, from one society to another -- madness in cinema seems to provide an otherworldly outlet that truthfully reflects the psychological states of Iranian people.

The Cow, The Marriage of the Blessed and Hamoun all share certain qualities that let madness to be the common focus in cinematic expression and progressing the characters. All three films focus on societal outcasts or people who feel abandoned by society. They seem to share the focus on feelings of powerlessness and repression, which is a definite cause for insanity. Naficy concludes, “the rigid, traditional structures were so strong that few authorized avenues of protest remained, forcing modern subjects into violent revolts, madness, hysteria, possession, or surrealism.” Surrealism and the cinematic use of human insanity is thus a powerful tool for art activism.

Works Cited

1. Naficy, Hamid. "The Emergence of New-Wave Films." A Social History of Iranian Cinema.

Durham: Duke UP, 2011. 336-57. Print.

2. Naficy, Hamid. "Islamicate Period II-II." A Social History of Iranian Cinema. Durham: Duke UP,

2011. 38-41. Print.

3. Naficy, Hamid. "Islamicate Period II-I." A Social History of Iranian Cinema. Durham: Duke UP,

2011. 128-165. Print.

4. Naficy, Hamid. "Women's Representation." A Social History of Iranian Cinema. Durham: Duke

UP, 2011. 114-135. Print.

5. Laachir, Karima, and Saeed Talajooy. Resistance in Contemporary Middle Eastern Cultures:

Literature, Cinema and Music. New York: Routledge, 2012. Print.