Iranian writer-director Shahram Mokri—whose second feature, Fish & Cat (2013), opens this year’s Festival of Films From Iran at Gene Siskel Film Center—has cited American slasher movies and the drawings of M.C. Escher as his primary influences for the film, which won a special prize for “innovative content” at the Venice film festival. The movie feels exactly like a fusion of those things: the setup recalls The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but the execution is almost impossibly tricky. Fish & Cat unfolds in a single 130-minute shot, though not in real time; there are frequent flashbacks and flash-forwards, and several scenes play out multiple times from different perspectives. I’m not sure whether Mokri has something more serious on his mind than playing an elaborate game; but even if Fish & Cat is just a game, it’s an engrossing, highly original one.
The movie opens with an ominous title card describing a real-life atrocity: in 1998 authorities discovered that three chefs at a rural restaurant had been serving human flesh. Cut to an empty restaurant in the middle of nowhere, as two decrepit-looking middle-aged men leave the kitchen and head into the surrounding woods with a plastic bag full of blood. The camera follows them for a good 20 minutes as they ramble, their unsettling discussion turning from a war-traumatized friend to rumors of ghosts in the vicinity. Eventually they pass a parked car, and the camera strays to approach the car’s owner, a Tehrani man dropping off his college-age son at a weekend-long kite-flying festival. The tone shifts suddenly from eerie to comic (as it will throughout the movie) when the anal-retentive father launches into a sob story about the girl he wished he’d married instead of the boy’s mother.
After following the son down to a lakeside camping ground, Mokri’s camera changes course to follow Parviz—a big-man-on-campus type who turns out to be the protagonist—as he walks along the lake and flirts with some female students. During one conversation, Parviz begins to narrate over the action. Apparently speaking from the future, he says he’ll follow the warning of his friend Nadal, who might have psychic powers, and leave early this weekend, though he doesn’t say what he’ll miss. When the camera shifts perspective yet again, it trails another guy around the lake . . . only to arrive back at the camping grounds a few minutes before Parviz showed up.
Fish & Cat contains no onscreen violence; in fact Mokri raises the possibility that no murders will take place. He circles around the same short stretch of time, key details changing with each repetition. What actually goes down at the lakefront? Are the chefs really murderers? Is Mokri just tricking us into thinking they are? Or are we seeing variations on the same story? Mokri does such a good job messing with your head that you might overlook the extraordinary ensemble players, who easily navigate the cascading narrative turns.