Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Fish Fall In Love

Directed by Ali Rafii

The main theme of The Fish Fall In Love is so familiar to the Iranian viewer that few of them may complain about its plot making no sense. Or if the viewer is not Iranian, he/she may adopt a post-modern disregard for plot logic and concentrate on the clearest message of the film: suspicion destroys our best hopes.
Newly freed political prisoner Aziz (Reza Kianian) sneaks back to his Caspian hometown to find his fiancée, Atieh, has been married off. Philosophical about life, he sneaks back out to roam the planet doing we know not what. These events happen years before the movie begins. In the opening scene Aziz drifts back into his hometown again, seeking nothing in particular. But a purpose finds him when he discovers he is in a position to help his ex-fiancée’s beautiful daughter, Touka (Gholshifteh Farahani). In a parallel between the generations, Touka’s fiancée has also been jailed, and she too has been misled to think her man has frivolously abandoned her.
The reasons for the deceptions are different. Touka is misinformed by her fiancee’s best friend because he wants her for himself. Atieh on the other hand took the word of Aziz's father who lied to save face. Her own father probably accepted this lie “for her own good.” He wouldn’t want her wasting her youth waiting for Aziz. How they got away with this lie in a tiny town where Aziz has close friends, we are not to question.
The characters, however, are free to indulge in outrageous skepticism. Touka’s jailed fiancée for instance, thinks Aziz has hired him a lawyer just to botch the criminal case against him. He suspects the middle-aged Aziz has fallen in love with young Touka and wants to eliminate rivals. Aziz in turn frustrates us with his stoic silence against this accusation.

The most frustrating moment of Aziz’s stoicism, however, happens on the occasions when Aziz and Atieh (Roya Nonahali) meet. He says nothing to clarify why he disappeared from her life. In fact he says nothing at all, because Atieh yells at him to shut up and listen while she guilt trips him about showing up after all these years to ruin her restaurant business. After her husband’s death, she has moved into the property abandoned by Aziz’s family, and set up a restaurant. Now, she thinks, Aziz is there to reclaim the property and evict her. The presence of a lawyer in the picture convinces her of this.

Atieh’s suspicion is unfounded. Aziz had no idea anyone was squatting in his property, or even seemed to care, but he is in no hurry to make this clear, or to explain about the lawyer. Nor does he ask Atieh what went on with her during all these years. Instead he asks a friend who tells him Atieh’s husband beat her senseless one night then took a rowboat out to sea never to return.

The domestic quarrel and the suicide are not explained, but this revelation along with subtle line deliveries by Reza Kianian invites us to guess what directions the plot may have taken if censors hadn’t been watching. Aziz and Atieh had premarital sex. Touka may be Aziz’s daughter. This is why Atieh’s husband went nuts, and this is why Aziz and Touka hold each other in such deep affection.
Now that the characters’ behaviors have found a sensible basis, we see that Atieh’s father had no choice but to quickly find a husband for his pregnant daughter. Atieh’s moving into Aziz’s house with her child, and the issue over property rights suddenly picks up considerably more logical as well as social and dramatic substance.
Reza Kianian’s artistry helps cut through some of the fog. In the scene where he and Touka first meet, he is multifaceted with his line delivery. “Are you Touka?” he says, and we can't be sure if he's responding to Touka's flirtatiousness or enjoying getting to know her after all these years. At a later dinner table scene, his line delivery of “Now that we are all together,”has a strong flavor of paternity. The sense of this alternate plot is strongest when Aziz confides in a friend, “Atieh acts as though we never…”
But director Ali Rafii (Fined by IRI in 2002 for "promoting immoral conduct" in a play ) knows such a film would never see the light of the projector. Instead censorship has left him with a confusing movie vulnerable to banal panderings to the male-bashing market. This has resulted in inaccurate film descriptions such as:

Atieh’s singular passion is food, and her small but popular restaurant on the sleepy Caspian coast is her pride and joy. But when Aziz, a former lover, appears after a twenty-year absence with the intention of closing the restaurant, Atieh prepares his favorite dishes, one after the other, in a desperate effort to convince him otherwise. Loosely based on the Persian fable of Shahrazad and the Thousand Myths (A Thousand and One Nights), director Ali Raffi uses the language of food to paint a richly textured portrait of life and love on the Southern coast of Iran [sic].”

Never mind that the above description has a Google sense of geography [see note 1] ; it also gives no clue that the Shahrzad theme and the pretty food is just the marketing candy. Yet, despite the silent compromises Rafii has has made to censorship and international marketing, his message about the destructiveness of groundless suspicion comes through, and makes a powerful emotional impact.

Reza Kianian’s interpretative skill as an actor encourages us to be patient with the film’s frustratingly stoic compromises, and view it as a visually delightful post-modern work. After one thousand and one such films, the censors may relent.

Note 1: The Caspian is to the north of Iran, not on her southern shores. Many Iranians are miffed with Google Earth for calling the Persian Gulf "Arabian Gulf."

Note 2: For a historical snapshot of the politics of pious film censorship in the US, see this absorbing 1965 essay by Judy Stone, 'The Legion of Decency: What's Nude?'

1 comment:

Sherry said...

I am very curious now, I should get this movie soon. I think most of the Iranian directors manage to tell so much saying so little...With their detail oriented cameras (eyes), i guess:)