About twenty minutes into the movie I turned to my friend sitting besides me in the movie theater and asked “Was this all one take?”. It was, and this one take kept going for the whole 138 minutes of the film, right up to the moment when the end credits started rolling with the live band still playing, their music flowing from the diegesis into film soundtrack.
Fish & Cat won the Special Orizzonti Award for Innovative Content, an award that wasn’t even on the menu. The fact that the Venice jury felt they should somehow reward this film has two implications. The film is indeed something you don’t come across every day. At the same time, the award sort of labels the film and, labels are misleading. This is not that Iranian movie all in one take.
First of all, there is nothing Iranian about this movie, except for the talent of the cast and crew. The story could as well be set in any other part of the world. There is nothing wrong with cinema that has a local flavor, but credit should also be given to a director that eludes exoticism (always big with festival juries) for a more universally human approach.
Secondly, being a one-take film it’s the least of its merits. Even if we reduce the film to this one technical aspect, Fish & Cat still stands apart from other such films. It is shot entirely outdoors, using natural light, in rough mountainous forest terrain, in winter, and the story has the characters (which are not few) moving in all directions. The film looks and sounds impeccable except for a few quivers of the camera. Put into context these quivers should be regarded more like the signs (scars) of a great cinematic achievement rather than mistakes.
The greatest thing about this technical aspect however, is that is not gratuitous, it’s not showing off, it’s not just pretentious form filled with whatever story was available. The form is intricately intertwined with the theme of the film: time. The film flows in one single take because time flows in one single take. Unlike other films and other directors who profess their preference for long takes or even one take films as a way of framing reality, in Fish & Cat, real time does not equal diegetic time. In both cases time flows, just not in the same direction. Analyzing the film from the perspective of different time structures (that is, a structure defined by a set of characters that perform a set of actions in a certain order, and a location), the film looks like an illustration of the Gordian Knot. Just like a piece of string (or Rope, if we are to mention the first film that tried to do something similar to the one take film), the string of time in this film has a linear unidirectional flow in the beginning and in the end, but there’s no telling what that direction is. As with a piece of string, you can’t really say which end is the beginning.
When watching a film we never question the beginning and the end, we never switch their places to see if it makes sense the other way around. There are films that choose to tell the story backwards, but there is always a clear time frame (past-present-future), cause and effect.
The confusion wouldn’t be at all obvious if it weren’t for the knot in the string, the body of the film that makes you question the beginning and the end. As with every knot in every string, a time knot means a time string that twists and flows back on itself – actions that cause other actions and so on, until some action causes the same action that started the whole chain of events. Only this time the camera has moved to another place, it’s somebody else`s point of view. Each point of view advances the plot, gives you a more clear understanding of the situation. Still, these puzzle pieces are so well designed that they fit perfectly with every other piece, and no single direction of causality (time flow) emerges, but a multitude.
I mentioned the fact that the film was shot outdoors, using natural light. Sunlight can be a good indicator of the passing of time. The light in Fish & Cat is always the same, no indication of the the time of day, no indication of time. This small detail fits perfectly with the whole concept put forward by the movie and brings us to the most important merit of this film.
Shahram Mokri had a great concept, but he didn’t stop there. He found the perfect form for his concept, the one take film, but he didn’t stop there either. He chose the most difficult setting imaginable and he managed to keep the camera flowing while following characters up mountains, and even squeeze in a bird’s eye view in the ending.
At any point in the making of this film, the director could have stopped pushing the limits, and it would have been enough to make this film memorable. To top it all, he chose to stay true to narrative cinema. There is an articulated, well written story in Cat and Fish, the film is not just an interesting cinematic exercise about time. What is that story? Seems appropriate to end this review with the words with which the director decided to open his film, based on a true story about a restaurant that served minced human flesh for food.
Fish & Cat (Mahi va Gorbeh), r. Shahram Mokri, 2013
by Andrei Șendrea