BEIRUT: A couple of middle-aged men, Babak and Saeed, are hiking through the woods, with discretely packaged machetes slung over their shoulders.
Babak carries a pink plastic bag that, as he informed a young tourist earlier on, contains rotten meat from his restaurant. Saeed tells Babak a story about their friends Mahmoud and Hamid, but soon pauses to invite Babak to listen to the music playing on the headphones he’s wearing. “Hamid’s nephew recorded it for him,” Saeed explains, “for the restaurant.”
“Did you know Hamid’s nephew is dead?” Babak asks.
Saeed wonders how the young man could have made this recording for his uncle if he’s dead. Matter-of-fact, Babak shrugs that Hamid is still in communication with the young man.
“It’s one thing for Hamid’s dead nephew to talk to him,” Saeed remarks. “It’s something else for him to record music for him.”
It’s curious, isn’t it, how cinema has come to associate the wilderness with evil. Actually it’s one of two contending versions of the wild.
On one hand there’s the “great outdoors” narrative, where middle class European and American sportsmen clamber through the bush and across mountainsides while, in more exotic climes, amiable Westerners (modeled on David Attenborough) make a living demonstrating what a fascinating and picturesque place “nature” is.
There’s the view, too, that the city is the beacon of things rational and enlightened; nature is its opposite, a benighted, irrational place where urbanites venture at their peril. This narrative probably has classical origins – Roman emperors distrusted a hinterland where entire legions were devoured by Germans and other wild beasts – but it attained its schlock apogee in popular cinema.
The standard remains “The Evil Dead,” Sam Raimi’s 1981 masterpiece of comic horror, in which a group of young people from “the city” drive out to a country house for a dirty weekend but encounter something altogether different.
Raimi’s movie remains the template for any number of young filmmakers, who would employ genre models as delivery systems for more profound filmic statements.
Take 30-something Iranian writer-director Shahram Mokri. His sophomore feature “Fish and Cat” is the most intellectually and aesthetically exciting rural horror to emerge from this region in years, perhaps ever.
The film premiered last year at Venice – where it won the Venice Horizons Award for innovative content – and has just screened in the Signals program of the International Film Festival Rotterdam.
Emulating a trope of recent supernatural and slasher cinema, “Fish and Cat” claims to be based on a true story.
It seems that in 1998 police prosecuted a restaurateur for serving “inedible meat.” The charges were leveled in the wake of several disappearances, involving young people who’d gone missing while camping not far from the restaurant in question – raising public suspicions about what grisly truth the euphemism “inedible meat” concealed.
Mokri’s fiction errs on the side of genre. While the prefatory text of the “true story” hangs on the screen, the cinema is filled with the grating sound of a knife being sharpened.
“Fish and Cat” tells the elliptical tale of a dozen or so young Tehranis who turn up at a lakeside campground for a kite-flying festival. As they walk through the film, they betray variations on a theme of youthful exuberance and insecurity that you’d find just about anywhere.
Moving in counterpoint to them are Babak and Saeed (Babak Karimi and Saeed Ebrahimifar), whose characters oscillate from unabashed and overbearing ignorance – they’ll rummage through your unattended belongings even if you’re nearby – to something more menacing.
Other year-round residents of this sodden ambit include a pair of brightly, and identically, clad one-armed men, “The Twins” (Nima and Pouya Shahrabi). As the film draws to a close, Saeed finally arrives at the place of Hamid (Khosrow Shahraz), the restaurant’s butcher, whose deceased nephew records music for him.
Sitting at the center of this web of acquaintance, the principal misplaced urbanite is Parviz (Abed Abest), organizer of the kiting contest.
He has a bickering relationship with Parvaneh (Ainaz Azarhoush). Anyway, when the camera first encounters him, Parviz is demanding to know whether Parvaneh has been messing with his gear.
“Not this again!” she replies, leaving the onlooker to assume that – at least in the first instance – he’s made similar accusations before.
The woman to whom he’s most attached, though, is his ex-gal, Ladan (Samaneh Vafaiezadeh), who is now married to some European guy and, when she appears at lakeside, enormously pregnant.
Offsetting the film’s narrative components, and inseparable from them, is Mokri and cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari’s playful formal approach.
“Fish and Cat” begins with a panning shot of the countryside that situates Babak’s restaurant in a yard littered with the bits and pieces of abandoned things. When he and Saeed embark upon their hike, Kalari’s steadicam follows them until Saeed stumbles upon the brooding, woolly-headed Kambiz (Faraz Modiri) and his overprotective dad.
When Kambiz leaves to join his friends, the camera departs with him, until he encounters Parviz.
“Parvaneh!” he demands. “Have you been messing with my gear?”
“Not this again!” she replies.
When the two go their separate ways, the camera follows Parviz.
Formally, then, “Fish and Cat” is a sophisticated game of tag. The camera pursues each character as he or she encounters various figures in the woods. During significant exchanges among the characters, the camera shoots 360-degree panoramic shots of the characters’ location.
During these visual gestures, dialogue is displaced by a character’s interior monologue.
This want of “objective” distance from individual characters nicely complements the story. As the steadicam pursues a character through the woods, it encounters his or her past interactions a second (third or fourth) time – each from the perspective of a different character.
Soon, Parvaneh’s repeated “Not this again!” begins to mean something else.
Complementing this impression of an endlessly looped complex of narratives are a couple of characters with a patina of the supernatural about them.
One of these is Jamshid (Mohammad Reza Maleki), a figure who drifts about unnoticed by any character except Nadia (Mona Ahmadi), who appears to be schizophrenic.
Yet there is more to Jamshid being Nadia’s hallucination. He has a history of bringing her places to uncover some bloodcurdling past event. While Nadia describes him as a messenger, he reveals that, in a past life, he was a journalist.
As it progresses, “Fish and Cat” becomes increasingly dream-like. Yet there is something in this story of Iranian adolescents – trapped on an ever-repeating circuit of conversation with a cannibalistic older generation – that evokes a reality far more political than a hillbilly restaurant’s health code infractions.
It’s a nightmare all right. It’s also an allegory.