MAHI VA GORBEH [Fish & Cat]
Director: Shahram Mokri
Reviewed by Kiomars Vejdani
The first thing we notice about Mahi va Gorbeh is the technical challenge Shahram Mokri has taken on board. The film is shot uninterruptedly from start to finish in one long take. But film’s technical excellence is only a doorway to a dark and ambiguous world. By passing through this doorway we face a labyrinth with multitude of questions awaiting us at every corner. Within a single shot of the film we encounter numerous characters, all crammed in a limited space, their life stories cutting across each other to make a complex pattern.
Our first point of contact with the film is a crime story. Right at the beginning of the film we are informed that it is based on a true event of horrible crimes committed by owners of a restaurant in northern Iran. But despite such information, there is no visual sign of any crime within the film. It is totally free of physical violence. Mokri seems not in the least interested in crime story. His approach to film’s subject is purely philosophical. Any referral to a committed crime is indirect and nothing more than a hint like the vague cry of anguish and agony we hear from far away, or the machete Babak takes with him before going into the woods and the blood stained foul smelling bag he carries along. Any intention of crime by Babak is only implied by his way of interaction with his potential victims, either a threatening manner (like his encounter with the driver at the beginning of the film), or a cunning approach (the way he lured Parvaneh into the depth of the woods). The nearest we get to witnessing any evidence of crime is the scene of the cat holding a cut off finger in his mouth. But again instead of visually presenting such an image it is described by Mina and we only have her horrified reaction as she stares straight at us. The subjective viewpoint of camera is enough to convey her horror.
We have clear confirmation of any committed crime only at the last moments of the film when Maral describes her own imminent brutal murder while sitting next to the man who is about to kill her. The time factor here shows a paradox. Maral is describing her own death in the past tense while the event has not taken place yet. As if Maral has past her moment of death and has joined what we might consider afterlife, and Maral that we have before our eyes is an apparition. I am reluctant to use the word ghost as it has become a cliché very much associated with supernatural horror films. Shahram Mokri has deliberately avoided two established genres, crime thrillers as well as horror films to aim at some deeper meaning. By joining death, Maral has become a memory, whether as she is remembered by others or as she remembers her own past life by acquiring some spiritual existence. Mokri seems to believe so. He unmasks the metaphysical nature of his film at the last moment.
Moment before her death Maral is listening to her favourite song Mahi va Gorbeh, which she shares with her would be assassin Hamid. He remembers that it is the same song his nephew had sent to him. This piece of information brings us right back to the beginning of the film when we are told that the tape was recorded by Hamid’s nephew long after his death. We have been all along in the territory of supernatural, marooned between life and death. Mokri has given the woods a supernatural quality without distorting the reality of environment.
In this context his long take is more than technical achievement. It is a dramatic necessity. His slow and continuous camera movements around the woods give it a dreamlike quality. It dulls our senses to the point that boundary between life and death becomes blurred. We have difficulty in distinguishing between living persons and apparition of the dead. Visually they all have solid and normal appearances (with the exception of the oddity of the twins). One possible line of guesswork in detecting spirits (going by the example of Maral) is by their internal monologue they tell us about their lives (I suspect Kambiz could come into this category). Or they can be invisible and without being noticed by others (like Jamshid who is seen and heard only by the woman he loves and not by her psychiatrist).
Living people, unlike spirits, present their stories through dialogue. We learn from their conversation about their affairs both past and present. Their fun and joy, arguments, sorrows, opportunities lost, frustrations and disappointments. In presenting their memories they visually evoke characters from their past by bringing them into present, and camera by its movement towards the evoked character creates a flashback (like the story of Asal’s accident causing her eye injury).
The time factor in the film is totally subjective. It does not follow the linear progress of real time.
It moves in circles returning to its starting point and by repeating the action creating a sense of Deja vu. This gives the film’s time factor an omnipresent, all encompassing quality. It is shared by every character. They are all, living and dead, in the same journey, moving towards the same destination. Some have already reached there. Others are at different stages of approaching it. We have already seen Maral going through that experience at the end of film. Revisiting that scene we notice a sharp contrast between the brutal nature of Maral’s murder and the serenity of the way she describes it. Maral has passed the point of pain and any other experience, pleasant or unpleasant, which is part of life. She has entered into a territory of spiritual existence associated with absolute freedom and peace. At the last few moments of the film such a state of experience is conveyed to the audience. With the end of Maral’s monologue, we hear her favourite song Mahi va Gorbeh being played on the sound track while camera pans away from Maral to show the band performing the song. The resulting shock of unreality breaks the cinematic illusion. The effect is like waking up from a long sleep, or if you like moving from our present life to the next stage. To convey such a state of being camera pans upward to show multitude of kites, symbolising our spiritual existence, floating freely in the sky. With his final shot Mokri celebrates something more lasting than our limited life span.