The film, directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, begins with an elderly couple arriving at an oasis to clean their gabbeh; a handmade rug, which often has a story woven into it. Suddenly, a young woman - whose story is woven into the rug - appears and her story comes to life.
The young woman - named Gabbeh (Shaghayegh Jodat) - works hard for her family and her people as they travel and survive through the various seasons and Iranian countryside. But she is young, attractive and of marrying age. Because of this she is pursued by a lone man on horseback who is in love with her. Each time he arrives the sound of a howling wolf can be heard in the distance and his solitary figure can be seen along the horizon. And each time the woman hears it she longs run away with him but cannot until her father feels that all her obligations to her people have been met.
The film's story is good but hardly unique. Cinematically, however, it is stunning as it strives to embody the oft repeated mantra: "Life is color! Love is color!" Makhmalbaf presents new rhapsodic possibilities in a narrative form which push past convention and becomes lyrical in ways we rarely see for an entire length of a film.
The film is mostly poetic in form and content. Makhmalbaf - who also edited the film - juxtaposes images of nature including animals, trees and people along with fabulous color and sound to tell his story. He too uses visual motifs - as a poet does - to give the film it's various narrative levels. Even when the film's acting is a bit awkward or the narrative a bit predictable the look of the film is terrific.
There is a subplot about the woman's uncle: a 57 year old teacher who comes home in hopes of getting married. When one of the older women accepts his hand in marriage it is a signal to Gabbeh that if she waits to be married she may end up with an old man. But her longing is continually frustrated and that becomes one of the film's themes.
This film began as a documentary about the Gashgai nomadic tribe of southeastern and central Iran but was turned into a fiction film when Makhnalbaf decided that a story about a narrative woven into carpets was too good to pass up.
I've seen Gabbeh four times since it came out in 1996 and it is always good mainly because it remains fresh because it opens up narrative possibilities by combining local customs wtih a universal story and a poetic form. But too it gives the audience insight into a part of Iranian culture without being merely an ethnographic film.