Wednesday, March 26, 2014

ND/NF ’14: Fish & Cat

Even in Iran, you can find sketchy backwoods types out in the provinces. In one true-life incident, a provincial restaurant actually served up human flesh. That is what you call rustic. It is also easy to see how this sensationalistic episode could easily be adapted for the big screen. However, Shahram Mokri takes his lurid inspiration in a cerebral art-house direction with the marathon one-take, circular narrative, Fish & Cat (trailer here), which screens during this year’s New Directors/New Films, co-presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and MoMA.

There seems to be a lot of offal and detritus littered about Babak and Saeed’s greasy spoon. They also act highly suspicious when a carload of college students stops for directions. Deciding there are “too many of them,” they send the kite festival goers on their way. Instead, they start hassling Kambiz (another festival entrant) and his emotionally stunted father. For all viewers know, they eventually kill the old man. Kambiz just leaves him there and he is one of the few characters Mokri never revisits.

Making his way to the campsite, Kambiz starts interacting with other students participating in the festival. Mokri will move from one character to another Slacker-style, periodically doubling back to an early to an episode or conversation we have already seen, but showing it from a different perspective—all within the same continuous tracking shot. In addition to the intersecting narrative, Mokri also plays games with characters’ interior monologues that often obscure as much as they illuminate.

Yet, F&C is an oddly tense film, ever mindful of its macabre elements. Mokri deliberately plays on the sense some serious slasher business is always about to erupt, particularly during the nerve-wracking sequence in which Babak lures one of the young women into the woods on a dubious pretext. There is no question F&C is a highly accomplished work. Mokri just pushes his luck, taking one too many spins around the narrative track. The film clocks in at one hundred thirty-four minutes, but it really should have been twenty minutes shorter. Frankly, some of the characters Mokri introduces right before the final “pay-off” are not nearly as compelling as those we have been following since the first and second acts (roughly speaking). The unbroken chain of crisscrossing narratives also just gets exhausting over time.

Still, you have to admire Mokri’s ambition and his execution. The whole thing hangs together remarkably well and his cast (mostly drawn from the stage) rises to the challenge quite commendably. Ostensibly, there is nothing of a political nature for state censors to object to in F&C, but it is still somewhat surprising it has not been run afoul of the authorities, who have been known to object to any “negative portrayal” of Iranian society. A film about hillbilly cannibals would not exactly fit their Lake Woebegone vision of contemporary Iran, where everybody is above average.

Of course, nobody would wish him trouble and we should all be glad to have F&C screening openly for international audiences. Combining elements of We Are What We Are and Before the Rain, Fish & Cat is rather highly recommended for patient and adventurous viewers. It screens tomorrow (3/27) at MoMA and Friday (3/28) at the Walter Reade as part of the 2014 ND/NF.