During his opening remarks before the premiere of A Most Violent Year on Day One, AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale advocated seeing films that would broaden your horizon – something you might not see otherwise. That is the mindset I took into the festival. Besides A Most Violent Year and ’71, I’m avoiding anything with a concrete release date in the United States. My hope is that such tactics will at some point deliver a unique experience. I may have found my white whale in the form of Fish & Cat, out of Iran.
Fish & Cat caught my attention because it is described in the festival guide as “a Friday the 13th installment by way of Alain Resnais.” Even more encouraging – the two-plus hour film consists of one continuous shot. That’s really all you need to say to sell me. I have been on a long-take bender lately, after films like Birdman (which I liked a lot – especially technically – despite its inherent pretension) and Russian Ark (which is incredibly boring, but impressive – I felt like I was sitting through a history lecture I forgot to do the reading for) – so at the very least I was excited to see what writer/director Shahram Mokri would do with technique.
The film takes place in and around the woods of a rural area outside of Tehran. A group of college students prepare for a lakeside kite festival, while a couple of grizzled and menacing locals (Babak Karimi and Saeed Ebrahimifar) prowl the treeline with sharp knives and a red-dripping bag of some unidentified rancid meat. Mokri is setting the audience up for a modern-day slasher, but first he is going to spend time learning about all of the players. We see a lot of Parviz (Abed Abest), the heartbroken leader of the students; Nadia (Mona Ahmadi), a young clairvoyant; Kambiz (Faraz Modiri), an angsty kid looking for independence from his sentimental father; and others in the moments before what will presumably be horrible violence. They sound like horror archetypes (or even stereotypes), but everyone gets adequately fleshed out due to Mokri’s preoccupation with character over anything else.
The cast is quite large, yielding a tricky task for Mokri, who wants to show the audience as many angles as he can on each one. This is where his novel use of the long take comes into play. The film proceeds pretty straightforwardly until about the halfway mark, at which point the film enters a time loop. We see the same stretch of about ten to fifteen minutes from four or five different perspectives, all without a single cut or edit. The logistics of accomplishing this feat are mind-boggling at times; this location is huge, and some characters walk across the entire thing during each loop, only to return back to their starting point by the time the loop begins again. The amount of work that the actors and Mokri and cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari must have put into this beast is probably more than I will ever be able to produce. Much like with Russian Ark, I would love to see a documentary about this productions. Unlike Russian Ark, I actually got some enjoyment out of Fish & Cat on more than a purely aesthetic level.
Which is not to say every aspect of the film is stellar. Some of the acting is pretty lackluster – which is not always something I am able to pick up on in a foreign language film. Some of the actors are less invested than others; Abest in particular seems to be dozing his way around the lake at times. On a similar note, the film slows to an almost screeching halt at the moments where the camera is just following characters around as they walk from place to place, to an almost sleep-inducing level itself. But when the exercise is in full swing, the movie is endlessly fascinating.
The word “exercise” really isn’t fair (“why’d you leave it in your final draft then, jerk?” you must be thinking). Mokri uses his format really well, and the manufactured long take in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman actually kind of suffers in comparison for a relative lack of purpose. I would love to check out Fish & Cat again soon, though who knows if/when I will have the opportunity. This may have been an un-reproducible experience, and there’s something really beautiful about that – even if it means I can never see one of my favorite movies from the festival again.
Read Steven’s further coverage of the festival: Day One includes a review of the upcoming A Most Violent Year; Day Two looks at the pervasiveness of sex and violence at AFI Fest, Day Three looks to move on after disappointment; Day Four finds three different films with distinct views of survival.