The Global Film Initiative is an admirable operation. Each year, its board – which features filmmaking luminaries like Pedro Almodóvar, Lars Von Trier, Bela Tarr and Mira Nair – selects up to ten films from South America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East that, the festival circuit aside, would go unseen in the United States. Under the title of The Global Lens Collection, these films are then screened in American cities with the aim of increasing ‘cross-cultural understanding through cinema’. Even better, the GFI’s partnership with First Run Features ensures the films are ultimately available on DVD.
The latest of these DVD releases is The Fish Fall in Love, an often charming but ultimately confounding Iranian anti-romance by debutant director Ali Raffi. The story, set in the modern day, is ostensibly based on the Arabian Nights tale of Scheherazade but crucially, has cookery substituting for storytelling.
After 22 years away, erstwhile architect Aziz (Reza Kianian) returns to his hometown on the Caspian coast to learn that, in his absence, his former love, Atieh (Roya Nonahali), has been running a restaurant in a house he still owns. Atieh, and the women who work with her, become convinced Aziz intends to evict them and, in an effort to stay their eatery’s execution, decide to delight him with a succession of succulent and spectacular dinners.
(A side effect of the film is the sudden desire to locate your nearest Iranian restaurant and order everything on the menu. Indeed, the GFI should organise a series of eat-along screenings that allow audience members to sample each of the sumptuous dishes served up onscreen; when watching The Fish Fall in Love, popcorn seems a resoundingly insufficient accompaniment.)
The Scheherazade storyline is though, just the surface layer of a film that is — or that wants to be — far more concerned with the motivations of its characters and the implications of their actions and inaction. The film attempts to convey a cautionary message about the danger suspicion poses to love, and another about the deleterious effects to personal fulfillment of staying quiet when it is better to speak up. These messages are, however, too vague to have any significant impact.
Whilst it’s easy to discuss the merits of The Fish Fall in Love (the touching representations of the camaraderie of the kitchen, the gorgeous sequences of painstaking food preparation, the lively and intriguing premise) without giving away too much of its plot, it is harder to examine the film’s faults without descending into spoilers. This is largely because the first half is far stronger than the second.
In the opening 45-minutes, the film looks likely to grow into a solid and refreshingly mature drama about adult emotions as experienced by adult characters that are, like real people, at once attractive and unattractive, ordinary and extraordinary. Our expectations slowly dissipate, however, as the remainder of the movie passes up every opportunity to capitalise on the possibilities of its plot, or flesh out the performances that propel it.
This is a heavily verbal film, one often as wordy as a play (Raffi is an established stage director), but, like Aziz and Atieh, it falls frustratingly silent at the moments when it most needs to express itself. We begin the film wondering about Aziz’s motives, about the true relationship between he and Atieh, and about that between he and Atieh’s daughter, Touka (Golshifeth Farahani) – and we end the film with precisely the same questions. The script is simply not declamatory enough, nor the acting sufficiently nuanced, to convey the drama that seems as if it should be inherent in the material.
The Iranian-American essayist Ari Siletz has convincingly argued — in The Fish Fall In Love (19 June 2008) — that the drama trapped inside Fish hinges on Touka in fact being Aziz’s daughter, an idea that would, of course, have scandalised Iranian censors and, as such, can barely be hinted at in the film. This is certainly an inference that enlivens and explains some of the storyline, but there is so little evidence for it onscreen that to accept it is an act of projection rather than interpretation. Subsequently, watching The Fish Fall in Love starts as an invigorating exercise in reading a film, but ends as a tedious exercise in reading too much into one.
The extras on this DVD are few and limited. There is a discussion guide that can be accessed via a DVD ROM drive and some general information about the GBI and its aims. Reading this we cannot avoid considering the irony that, for a film chosen for its potential to advance American understanding of Iran, The Fish Fall in Love would have been more likely to achieve its aims (and those of the GBI) had it been set in Iran but made in the US. In a less censorious society, the plot’s potential could have been properly developed and its themes adequately explored.
The pressures of censorship cannot excuse the failings of a film. Whilst there are unfortunate reasons why Raffi (who not only directed the film but also produced it, wrote its script and designed its sets and costumes) might not have been able to make the film he wanted to, they don’t make the film he actually made any better. If he can learn to create fully-realised films within the constraints of Iranian censorship, Ali Raffi may well emerge as a filmmaker of rare class; if he can’t, he will only ever attract benign speculation about what might have been.