Time of Love (1991) is Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s ninth feature film and the first film of what he calls his “third period” (Dabashi, 187). It is a romantic trilogy that offers three variations of the same story. All center around a love triangle between a woman, her husband and her lover. The roles of the two men alternate depending on the version. All versions end either tragically or with no clear resolution of the conflict. Very little has been written about this film in comparison to his later works for a variety of reasons. One is perhaps because it was made before Makhmalbaf achieved international success. Furthermore, as it was filmed in Turkey and then banned shortly after its release in Iran for treating the controversial subject of female adultery, its distribution and exhibition has remained limited. Yet Makhmalbaf has called it, along with Once Upon a Time, Cinema (1992), the best film he made during that period (Dabashi, 188). It is thus unfortunate that there has not been more attention drawn towards Time of Love, not only because of its numerous narrative and formal achievements, but because it is very important in understanding the shift that Makhmalbaf made artistically and ideologically at this time of his filmmaking, especially as Time of Love is the film that started this phase. The director describes this period as being one in which he chose to explore themes from a relativist perspective, as he felt that his two previous periods had been governed respectively by absolutist, dogmatic outlooks on religion and politics (Dabashi, 210).
In this essay I will briefly review the limited literature that has been produced about the film, while combining this approach with an intertextual study of Makhmalbaf’s use of the poem The Three Fish (Rumi in Barks, 193-200, see poem at end of essay) by the most well known Persian mystic poet, Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi , as a source of inspiration and imagery for this film. No English or French language publication has yet acknowledged this direct link to Rumi’s The Three Fish, probably because of the Western ignorance of Persian poetry; however reading the film through this angle adds many new dimensions to it as well as to Makhmalbaf’s ideas at the time. My goal in analysing the film in this way is to demonstrate that despite his claim to relativism, many elements about Makhmalbaf’s discourse in interviews relating to the film, as well as elements depicted in the film itself, are in contradiction with the concept of relativism. When analysing the film from this position, it is possible to see that an absolutist idea of Sufism, and of many other monotheistic religions, is subtly conveyed in the film: that of God being the only holder of absolute Truth about existence. This idea in itself can seem quite contradictory and even mind boggling because if it supposes that humans cannot know the Truth, how can they affirm this truism about the nature of God, or even confirm His existence with certainty? Sufi philosophy is full of these contradictions however, and even thrives on them, because attempting a resolution between dichotomies is for them a proof of the unity of God.
Western critics have repeatedly seen Time of Love as a call for more freedom in the Middle-East, especially for women, because it is a female character who is striving to be with the man whom she truly loves, and she is not afraid to commit adultery in the process (Anquetil; Remy, 44; Bottéon, 9). Yet the film is not as “freeing” as they say it is, even though freedom is an important notion that it dwells upon. But as we will see, it is freedom on more of a spiritual level that is advocated.
Because they are so influenced by Islamic mysticism, Makhmalbaf’s persistence in calling the films of this period, and particularly Time of Love, relativist, can thus be seen as a contradiction. This is by no means a negative spirited observation however, because, as Bertolt Brecht has said (and Makhmalbaf would certainly agree with this): “In the contradictions lies the hope.” I nonetheless wish to provide an alternate reading to the film’s subtext, not to necessarily impose a reductive interpretation on it, but rather to add a new facet to the possible meanings that are conveyed in this film. Thus if I seem to contradict myself in this essay, it is a deliberate strategy to make a link to the Sufi dichotomy between the unity and the multiplicity, which I see reflected in Time of Love.
Sufism has produced a long tradition of ecstatic love poetry which celebrates the direct union with God, a state called fana’ (Baldock, 224), as Sufis believe that they can achieve this while still being on the terrestrial plane. Much like Makhmalbaf’s ideas during his third period, Sufism strongly stresses the multiplicity of experiences that are available to humans on earth in an attempt to have a more tolerant perspective on the nature of life and on the correct “behaviour” that humans must abide by. However, this multiplicity, they argue, is only possible because it is an intrinsic part of the unity of God, because everything is created by God and thus it is of God, therefore denying polytheism, as Sufism is after all under the effigy of Islam, one of the great monotheistic religions of the world. A line from a poem by Rumi can sum this up: “It is because of God’s utter incomparability, that He has so many comparisons!”(Burgel, 45) So though the Sufis, much like Makhmalbaf, acknowledge the importance of multiplicity (which is a concept close to relativism), this can exist only under the inclusive power of divine unity possessing the ultimate (and thus absolute) Truth about existence.
Though Iranian art cinema has always been called poetic, very few writers have extensively commented on the poetry inherent in Time of Love, and not a single Western scholar has observed the tremendous influence that Rumi’s poem and Sufi thought has had on the film. This is perhaps in great part because Makhmalbaf himself has not mentioned this link during interviews about the film (though as we will see later the connection is more than obvious after one has read the poem in question). Perhaps he did not want to admit to having been so greatly influenced by another artwork, or maybe he simply wanted to avoid creating the possibility for his audience to make too direct associations to the poem to understand the meaning of the film, thus limiting its relativist ambitions and apparent refusal to provide clear cut answers about its narrative and the fate of its characters. Nonetheless, the intertextual approach is in itself a useful strategy to express varying viewpoints in a film, as Robert Stam has noted:
Intertextuality is less interested in essentialist definitions than in the active inter-animation of texts (…) intextextuality is more pro-active [than “genre”]: the artist actively orchestrates pre-existing texts and discourses rather than simply following a formula. [It] allows for dialogic relations with other arts and media, both popular and erudite (Stam, 154).
When Hamid Dabashi asked him which poets had influenced his work, Makhmalbaf modestly answered that he knows very little about poetry but that his favourites are Sohrab Sepehri and Forough Farokzad (Dabashi, 198). In the conclusion of the interview however, he quotes a fable by Rumi:
…the truth is a mirror that shattered as it fell from the hand of God. Everyone picked up a piece of it, and each decided that the truth was what he saw reflected in his fragment rather than realizing that the truth had become fragmented among them all (Dabashi, 212).
He has quoted this story in at least one other source, relating it specifically to what he wanted to express in Time of Love (Hurst, 19). We can thus assume that Rumi has had an influence on him, even though this connection is rarely alluded to. So though humans in this fable seem to embody a relativistic perspective in each believing that their own “different” truth was The Truth, they fail to see that it is a part of the one Truth; that of God.
Many film scholars seem perplexed or reticent in analysing the meanings conveyed in this first film of Makhmalbaf’s third period, perhaps because with its three variations on the same story, none of which express clear resolutions of the conflict at their conclusion, it doesn’t lend itself easily to rational analysis. This is why, however, a metaphysical approach to examining it may be more useful. The only source that comes close to making this kind of analysis is Eric Egan’s new book focusing exclusively on the work of Makhmalbaf: The Films of Makhmalbaf, Cinema Politics and Culture in Iran. However, though he writes about some of the symbolic elements of the film being reflexive of the Persian literary tradition (the birds signifying poetic love and the sea as a symbol of eternal truth and love, and drowning in it a reunion with God) he makes no references to mysticism, Sufism or Rumi, so we can presume that he had no knowledge of the existence of the poem nor of course of the film’s intertextual use of it (Egan, 132). This is slightly disappointing, because the chapter in which this is discussed is called The Poetics of Contemplation, yet he does not delve sufficiently into an explanation of the poetic symbols that Makhmalbaf uses in his films, something that would have been useful for a Western audience in appreciating his films more fully.
I will now write more extensively about this intertextual use that Makhmalbaf has made of Rumi’s The Three Fish, to demonstrate that though Time of Love allows for different perspectives on reality to be explored, it still is potentially a carrier of one absolutism; the belief in the supremacy of God in holding the Truth, thus making its claim to relativism a contradiction, because in essence relativism refuses fixed meanings.
Countless elements in the film provide hints that Makhmalbaf was deeply influenced by mystic poetry in the making of Time of Love. The name of the main female character for example, is Ghazal. In his book entitled The Essence of Sufism, John Baldock defines the meaning of the word ghazal as follows; “a short poem of between ten and fifteen verses, used primarily for love poetry” (Baldock, 225). When she wears a wedding gown at the end of the film it can be related to the fact that “many a Persian poet compared poetry to a veiled bride” (Burgel, 45). This was done to indicate that poetry should not be taken literally, that one should look under the veil to see its true meaning revealed. Makhmalbaf was presumably saying the same thing about the meaning of his film. Islamic film reviewers in Iran saw Time of Love as encouraging `carnal and earthly’ love, and all the criticisms it received after its screening at the 1991 Fajr Film Festival resulted in it being banned in Iran. This is ironic because other films about love from that year were accepted because they “exhibited attributes of `spiritual and mystical’ love” (Naficy, 1999, 60), but unfortunately the critics failed to see these qualities in Makhmalbaf’s film as well.
Moving more closely to the associations that Makhmalbaf makes to the poem of The Three Fish, many similarities to the film can be found. First, simply in their structure, both the poem and the film divide their narrative into three parts; Makhmalbaf by showing three variations of one story, and Rumi by expressing how three fish dealt with the same threatening situation of being chased by fishermen in three different ways, depending on their level of intelligence. The triangular structure of the film is not limited simply to its three distinct parts, but to many other elements that reinforce it. Most evidently, we are witnessing the consequences of a love triangle throughout the film. The children that play music for the characters always come in a trio. Ghazal’s mother makes an ambiguous statement during the first segment when she replies to Ghazal’s question as to why she has forced her to marry a man that she did not love; “Love is not everything. I’ve had three experiences in life.” The scene then cuts with no explanation to this odd utterance. Another reference to the number three could be read in the image of Christ that sits above the judge’s pulpit, which may be referring to the concept of Trinity in Christianity. One of the oft praised elements of Sufism is of its tolerance and even high respect of other religions. A Christian church in Shiraz, Iran, has a quote by Rumi carved in stone over its door (Barks, 201). Rumi repeatedly wrote about Jesus in his poems. A passage of the aforementioned quote is as follows: “Where Jesus lives, the great-hearted gather” (Barks, 201). The meaning of the Holy Trinity in Christianity is very similar to the Sufi concept of the multiplicity forming the unity. God, Christ and the Holy Spirit are often referred to as separate entities, yet they are understood as being all one in God. This brings us back to the idea of God being the supreme knower, possessor and maker of all meaning, thus another element to contradict the relativist aspirations of the film. As it has been previously mentioned, this film happens to be the first one of his third period. And finally an interesting quote by Makhmalbaf where he separates the nature of people in three distinct categories can add to this obsession with the number three. The first category is the kind of people that are constantly worried with the unending “little miseries” of their lives. The second is the kind that live like children, with delight in living, and searching only for happiness. The last type is those whom are burdened by human misery (Dabashi, 199). For a man who claims to have moved into a relativist approach to life and art, these are very absolutist sounding statements. The previous is one example, but another quote from the same interview is even more striking in its lack of objectivity, even though it is full of wisdom: “But the fact is that truth is not found in a single place” (Dabashi, 205). This statement, as relativist as it sounds, can become absolutist, especially if we change one word: “But the truth is that truth is not found in a single place.” However it is also a self-contained contradiction that proves its own point!
Much like Sufism was accepted by and accepted other monotheistic religions, Makhmalbaf has encoded his film with many ideas taken from other great religions, as we have started to see with the references to Christianity. Another example is when at the end of the first segment the character of the brown haired man is sentenced to death, after the judge has told him that he can choose his own death sentence since he has delivered himself to the authorities. The man says that he wishes to be drowned in the sea because his grandmother told him that when one dies at sea, he is reborn. Particularly because of the image of Christ that hangs on the wall of the court, this can be a reference to resurrection, as the man does indeed “come back to life” in the following segments.
It can also be seen as an allusion to the Hindu and Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation. Furthermore, it is an indication that Makhamalbaf’s religious upbringing is still an influence on him even if he no longer has fundamentalist tendencies, because he has said that it was his grandmother who taught him all about religion, as she would tell him bed time stories about the prophets when he was a child. He has said about her: “She was so kind that God and my grandmother merged into one in her stories. When I think of God, I think that this is still the case –the God that rests in the depth of my heart looks like my grandmother” (Dabashi, 165). And if we want to find even more autobiographical elements in the film, we can think of Makhmalbaf’s sheltered childhood during which he was forced to stay inside his home at all times because his father (who had divorced from his mother after only six days of marriage) had hired a man to kidnap the young Makhmalbaf, and this man would always stay outside their house waiting for him to come out. The director has said that this has translated into him making many films about fear (Hurst, 19). That sentiment is still present in this film, even if more obliquely than in other films, as the symbolic threat of the “fishermen” from the poem as oppressors blocking the way to the ocean is obviously alluded to by the impossibility of the lovers living out their love story, as well as to the attainment of a greater love, that of the Divine, that they do not seem to know the existence of; we will come back to this point later. Makhmalbaf has also said that the thing that would make him feel “more secure than any place in the universe” (Dabashi, 165) during his early childhood was to sleep beside his grandmother. And as we have seen, his grandmother is like God to him, thus the feeling of safety that she provided to him can be related to the way Rumi writes about the ocean, the ocean being a symbol for God, or “the Divine Unity” in Sufi poetry (Baldock, 76): “…the edgeless safety of the sea” (Rumi in Barks, 195). Additionally, this is also a direct reference to a passage of Rumi’s poem The Three Fish. In Sufism, fish represent the individual human beings that can survive only inside the ocean (i.e. God) (Baldock, 76). When the brown haired man in Time of Love is about to be sentenced to death for the first time, he reacts like the stupid fish when he is near his tragic end in the frying pan after the fishermen have caught him, as he thinks to himself: “If I get out of this, I’ll never live again in the limits of a lake. Next time, the ocean! I’ll make the infinite my home” (Rumi in Barks, 197). Well, in Time of Love, Makhmalbaf grants “the stupid fish” his wish in many ways. Another indication that the character of the brown haired man can symbolize the character of the dumb fish in the first segment, is that he gave himself in willingly to the authorities, similarly to the fish in Rumi’s story who did not dare escape towards the ocean and got caught by the fishermen. At other moments in the film there are references to this, as when Ghazal’s blonde lover removes the fish that she is cooking from a frying pan and brings it to the ocean and it magically comes back to life. These symbols all work on many different levels, so that even if a viewer is not aware of Rumi’s poem, or of the symbolic meaning of these things in Persian poetry, he or she can link it to ideas more familiar to the Westerner, such as resurrection. What Ghazal’s blonde lover says to her after giving back the fish to the ocean is symbolic of the mystical meanings of this action: “It was the sea that made me fall in love. I was in love with no one to love, until I met you.” This is a recognition of the infinite love that God (the sea) represents. Yet it is perhaps also an indication that carnal love is inferior to that kind of love, because Ghazal responds to him: “But you have just lost me,” which is soon followed by the scene where Ghazal’s husband kills him. It can be seen as an indication that forgetting God’s love in favour of purely carnal love is a mistake. And finally, however accidentally this has occurred, it is still interesting to note that the name of the actress playing the role of Ghazal is Shiva Gerede. Shiva is the name of the God of destruction and regeneration in the Hindu sacred triad (Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 1997, 1098). Shiva is furthermore considered to be the third great Hindu deity after Brahma (the creator God) and Vishnu (the preserver God of the sacred triad) (Le Petit Larousse, 1994, 682). This fact is reminiscent of our earlier examination of the Christian Trinity and another, however unintentional, reference to the number three, as well as an example of a multiplicity forming a unity.
Makhmalbaf has spoken about his trips to India as having greatly shifted his perspective on filmmaking. He says that his experiences there brought him “…moments of enlightenment, almost mystical ones…” (Dabashi, 202), that were later of great inspiration to his work. He speaks of Hindu mysticism as being more open than Islamic or Buddhist mysticism in the sense that it is more immediately available to the population. He says that the street beggars in Bombay taught him this. Despite their dire living conditions, he was amazed at how they were always dancing in the street, as in a celebration of life. He tells of how after asking for a bit of money to buy food, they will follow their request with that of a bit of money to buy a ticket to go to the movies. Makhmalbaf believes this to be the case because the positive images in Indian cinema are like medicine to soothe their pain, a tool to help them dream. So he believes that filmmakers have the responsibility, and not only in India, to make films that do not dwell on the misery of the world (which he calls “black” cinema, and compares it to the kind he was making before his third period). He calls his new ideology “white”: “…I slowly came to accept that I believe in nothing but the simple fact of existence –living. And living is white” (Dabashi, 201). He also credits his realisations about fatherhood as having provoked this shift: “…you begin to see all of humanity as being similar to your children. You begin to feel that you don’t have the right to stand in the way of their peace” (Dabashi, 200).
A symbol of this change in Makhmalbaf’s filmmaking in Time of Love that can be correlated to this, is when the old man frees a bird from a cage at the beginning of the second segment. It is of course an ode to freedom, but it can be read in other ways as well. The bird that he frees is black, yet in the following shot a white bird is seen flying over Istanbul. This is indicative of Makhmalbaf’s statement of having moved from making a “black” cinema to a “white” one, no longer seeing the value of the former. Though there are still elements of suffering in some of Makhmalbaf’s films made after Time of Love (in Kandahar (2001) for example), their colourful poetry seems to override the “dark” elements. Though it is an honourable aim for him to strive to convey hope in his films, this opposition between black and white has created a few potentially stereotypical symbols in Time of Love that do not sufficiently allow room for the grey areas of relativism. Another example would be how the blonde (light) haired man is depicted as more good in nature than the dark haired man throughout the film. One critic has seen Makhmalbaf’s refusal to give these two characters a name an indication of how interchangeable they are as they exchange roles from one section to the other (Thoraval, 89); yet there are fundamental differences in their character that remain constant in every section that refute this suggestion. The dark haired man is always the killer in the parts in which there is a murder. He is much harder on Ghazal when he finds out about her affair, as he beats her savagely twice. However when the blonde man is put in the position of being Ghazal’s husband, he is shown as somewhat weak and unable to confront her about her affair, as illustrated in the comical scene where he practices an angry speech that he wants to deliver to her, but upon her arrival he can only sheepishly ask if she needs help preparing dinner. In the last segment, the dark haired man threateningly uses a knife to spread black shoe polish on the blonde man’s face, the polish potentially symbolizing his dark, negative characteristics. Under the influence of the speech by the blonde man about humans not being born to kill each other and about being ready to die rather than stopping to love Ghazal, the dark haired man does radically shift his position at the end by refusing to kill his rival and even allowing him to marry Ghazal. At this moment he seems to reach a higher understanding of the concept of unconditional love. Perhaps, in Buddhist terms, this is an effort to regain the balance in the yin/yang pair that the two seem to make. The blonde man understands it much faster than he does, however, as it does not take him three recreations (or reincarnations…) of the narrative to let go of his hold on Ghazal when he realizes that she no longer loves him. When Ghazal says that she now believes that her heart is with the brown haired man, the blonde one runs out of the car to go get him back for her. The man he now finds is the mysterious character of the old man who was stalking them throughout the film, who is now also seen longing for Ghazal’s love (whom he furthermore calls “my Ghazal”). This seemingly odd twist in the narrative is not necessarily another way for Makhmalbaf to blur the meanings of his film, as it can be interpreted in a very specific way that will be discussed in the following section.
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