The Brno edition of the Iranian Film Festival opened Tuesday with two bracingly good movies, Reza Dormishan’s I’m not Angry! and Shahram Mokri’s Fish & Cat. The overall theme of the festival is “Rebels of Iranian Cinema” and the double bill was a fitting opening, showing the verve, innovation and fearlessness common in the best independent filmmaking, and showcasing two young directors of startling talent.
The screening of I’m not Angry! is especially timely in the wake of recent events in Paris and the depressingly inevitable Islamophobic backlash that followed. Depicting the challenges faced by modern liberal Muslims in the oppressive climate of modern day Tehran, the film caused controversy with its frank portrayal of life under Ahmadinejad’s prohibitive regime.
The film introduces Navid (Navid Mohammadzadeh), a young man scraping a living in a menial job after being expelled from university because of his political activism. Navid is engaged to Setareh (Baran Kosari), but he can’t afford to support them if they get married. To make matters worse, her father is having second thoughts about his blessing. Suffering from anxiety and depression, Navid constantly pops pills to keep a lid on his mounting anger management issues. Eventually he snaps, gives his crooked boss a beating, and loses his job.
There is a palpable sense of frustration and rage pulsing through the whole film. Dormishan uses flash forwards, sped up motion, choppy editing and jarring audio cues to emulate Navid’s state of mind and keep the viewer on edge. The occasional flashes of violence, both real and imagined, feel raw and immediate.
The hyperactive visual style eventually grows tiring, and sometimes distracts from the two excellent central performances. Dormishan doesn’t need to keep hitting us over the head with stylistic tricks, because Mohammadzadeh says it all with his diffident smile, twitching eyes and slumped shoulders, an acurate portrayal of a decent man crushed by the system. No matter how desperate Navid becomes, he still has the morals to turn down offers of dodgy work from distant family members and friends.
Kosari is equally good, displaying a spiky, playful intelligence. It is clear that she loves Navid, but is resigned to the fact that without her father’s blessing she won’t be able to spend her life with him. Navid and Setarah’s relationship is so believable and touching that it keeps the otherwise grim material compelling, right up to the shocking, heartbreaking conclusion. It’s an immensely powerful and human film.
Fish & Cat couldn’t be much more different, an offbeat metaphysical slasher movie that will delight people who enjoyed puzzling over Donnie Darko and Memento. Inspired by a true case of human meat found in the cuisine of a backwoods Iranian restaurant, Mokri’s mindboggler is shot in one gobsmacking two hour take.
The film starts off firmly in Deliverance territory, as a carload of posh kids stop at the restaurant of Babak (Babak Karimi) and Saeed (Saeed Ebrahimifar) to ask for directions. The two men are unfriendly and threatening, and their eaterie is perhaps the most unappealing ever put on screen. Having begrudgingly given directions, the pair grab their murdering gear and trudge off through the woods towards a campsite where a group of students are setting up for a kite flying festival.
The logistics of the project are quite staggering, as the roving camera passes from one individual or group of characters to the next. The decision to make the film in one take initially seems gimmicky, but in some scenes generates genuine suspense, particularly when one girl accompanies Babak into the woods alone.
Mokri also has a bigger trick in store. When the film’s first Deja vu moment happens the effect is shocking – because of the single take, revisiting a scene that has already happened feels impossible. Then it happens again and again, from different angles, perspectives and with different people. It is a stunning effect, like the characters are stuck in a weird glitch in time.
There are numerous clues to suggest something supernatural is going on – ghostly whisperings in the background of the music Saeed is listening to, a character with psychic abilities after a kiting accident.
The film is way too long and there is tedium involved. Since everything is filmed in “real” time, if a character takes three minutes to walk somewhere, then we have no choice but to spend three minutes plodding along behind them. An English remake would be about twenty minutes shorter, because we tend to walk briskly everywhere, even when strolling in the woods. Watching a one-take film is also an exhausting experience, waiting for a cut between scenes that never comes because we’re conditioned by regular movies to expect it.
While the dialogue is interesting and quirky enough to pass time between the creepy metaphysical stuff, the performances are functional at best. In true slasher tradition, the kids are interchangeable and the most interesting characters are the killers themselves, who paradoxically provide most of the film’s humour and humanity.
Fish & Cat definitely won’t please everybody, but will no doubt build a cult following. Whether you like it or not, the technical achievement is beyond doubt, and warrants at least another viewing just to try figuring out how it was done.
This short festival concludes tonight with It’s a Dream and Hard Makeup, showing at 6pm and 8.30pm respectively. If these films are half as strong as I’m not Angry and Fish & Cat, then they should be regarded as essential viewing.
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