By Moira Sullivan. 

The award at the 70th Venice Film Festival called the “Special Orizzonti Award for Innovative Content” went to Shahram Mokri’s Mahi Va Gorbeh (Fish and Cat). The Orrizzonti (Horizons) category features work that takes cinema into new directions. This is well exemplified by acclaimed Iranian writer-director’s amazing feature, bringing to mind such idiosyncratic works as Park Chan Wook’s 33-minute film shot on an iPhone entitled Night Fishing (2011), which examined a Shaman ritual of the undead.

Mahi Va Gobeh is a film about the undead too, and it takes some time to realize it. One may look  to how Asian film indicates the presence of the undead though, to find a kindred film here–bewildered and confused characters, strange repetitive dialogue and missing objects, and above all characters dressed in white clothing. Not at first, but as the Mahi Va Gorbeh goes on, more and more characters are dressed in white boots, or pants, or jackets. That is when it clicks.

The setting is an ugly shore on the Caspian Sea with no wind, during Winter Solstice in Iran. The still weather conditions are unusual for an annual kite festival, but that does not stop university students from camping along the shore, though we rarely see any of them. There is no snow on the shore, only barren trees and fallen brown leaves. The weather is overcast, certainly fitting for a story that has been introduced as a disturbing real life event in which human flesh wound up in the food at a country restaurant. Incidentally, this detail is all we know about the film before the screening.

The opening scene shows a young driver asking directions at a run down shack that turns out to be a “restaurant”. The owner asks the man for his ID and interrogates him as to how he could slip past an unseen gate. The driver tells the owner that he and his companions are there for the annual kite festival. During the conversation, the intrusive restaurant owner is holding a white bag with unknown contents that stain the bag red and give off a horrible smell. The owner and his two companions can later be seen walking through the woods or speaking with passerbys, but for the time being are put out of mind.

The innovative content mentioned earlier has much to do with the film’s construction of its narrative, but also with how that narrative is told in a 134-minute continuous long-take. The desolate Caspian area lends itself well to this task, because there are plenty of paths on the shore and in the surrounding woods. It’s a matter of following characters circuitously until they meet other characters and change direction. This is not obvious and is done subtly, and it seems to be part of the film’s design and intention to represent the undead.

The undead in cinema are people who have died and come back to tell their story to people who remain alive. Usually this is because there is something that they want to convey about the horrible way they died or some buried secret they need help uncovering. The dialogue of Mahi Va Gorbeh primarily consists of questions about whether someone has seen someone, or if someone has seen his or her kite light or some other missing object. The preponderance of missing objects and people accelerates and gradually we notice that no one is in the tents. The only time we see the interior of a tent is when the organizer of the kite festival logs the light and model of a competitor’s kite on a clipboard. Meanwhile, most of the men seem lost and have illusive girlfriends or wives who constantly confuse them. In contrast, the women in Mahi Va Gorbeh are mysterious and independent. The film design then accentuates this angst as it forces the viewer to try and make sense of who is on the path at any given moment–and why they are on the path. All this chaos leads to a brilliant film, in which a single shot film feels like many and the stories branch out like the barren limbs of a tree.

Mahi Va Gorbeh is disturbing and stays with you a long while because it is structured as a continuous ordeal that must be endured until the end. There is no reprieve from the constant walking back and forth on the shore and through the woods. There is no end to the repetitive questions, which force the spectator to pay attention and figure out the maze. It is definitely a film worthy of more than one screening and affirms itself as one of the best of Orizzonti.

Moira Sullivan is an international FIPRESCI and FEDEORA film critic and scholar. She teaches film studies at City College of San Francisco.

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