“The Fish Fall in Love” - Ali Rafie (2006)

Sometimes a significant aspect of a narrative, besides the telling of events in the "present", is the slow disclosure of the backstory.  A stranger or long-absent colleague shows up in a community, and there is something about that person’s background that represents a puzzle that must be disclosed – both to us and to some of the members of that community.  This is the driving force behind The Fish Fall in Love (aka When Fish Fall in Love, Mahiha Ashegh Mishavand, 2006).  In fact the puzzlement around the film’s backstory is pushed to an extreme that perhaps represents the film’s weakness as well as its fascination.

Because the backstory is so much the focus in The Fish Fall in Love, and the viewer spends much of his or her time trying to unravel it in order to uncover the motivations of the main character, it can also help to be mindful of the backstory behind the film’s creator, the distinguished Iranian playwright and stage director, Ali Rafie.  Rafie originally studied sociology and theater in France, graduating from the Sorbonne with a PhD in 1974.  When he returned to Iran, he was soon jailed because of his criticisms of state censorship, but he eventually went on to establish himself as both a practitioner and academic, – achieving distinction as a stage director, stage designer, costume designer, and playwright.  Finally at the age of sixty-eight, he undertook his first venture into filmmaking with The Fish Fall in Love.

In this story, the most significant actions occur outside of the events depicted.  Either they took place before the film started – the backstory I have been telling you about.  Or they take place offscreen.  Or perhaps more significantly, they take place after the last frame has been shown.  The plot concerns a middle-aged man, Aziz, who returns to his hometown after a long absence and wishes to settle some affairs.  We want to know why he was absent and what he plans to do now that he’s back.  The fate of several people in the story will depend on what he chooses to do.  Although there are numerous scenes involving a number of related characters, the focalization is centered around three main figures:
  • Aziz (played by Reza Kianan), who is returning to his hometown after twenty-two years
  • Atieh (Roya Nonahali), the former girlfriend of Aziz
  • Touka (Golshifteh Farahani), who is Atieh’s daughter
With the many little scenes, the story meanders along, offering slivers of information that one might piece together in order to guess what Aziz is up to.  But I partition these scenes into four main sections.
1.  Prologue
Aziz is traveling in a hired car from Tehran to an Iranian port town on the Caspian sea.  At a roadside café along the way, Aziz chats with a young man, Reza, who is traveling in the same car.  Reza's job at a local fish farm qualifies him to be an expert on fish.  So Aziz asks him the difference between farmed fish and fish caught in the wild, and Reza explains that farmed fish are flabby and tasteless, because of their confinement.  On the other hand, wild fish are more adventurous and fearlessly swim upstream in order to spawn – hence they are sometimes called “lovers”.  This will be a metaphor for the entire film, because Aziz, who has spent time in prison, is inhibited and suffers from self-doubt – he is not a wild fish.
A little later on up the road to the Caspian, their car is stopped at a police checkpoint, and Reza is arrested and handcuffed, for some undisclosed charge.

2.  Aziz arrives in the seapor
When Aziz arrives in town, he visits a restaurant run by a woman who silently recognizes him through a small window.  It is Aziz’s former fiancé, Atieh.  Although it takes awhile, we eventually learn that this restaurant is actually a house that belongs to Aziz’s family, and he has returned to this town to reclaim it.  Atieh, along with her daughter, her sister, and an adopted lady friend, has been using this building to host her restaurant for the past ten or so years.  Now they are all terrified that Aziz is going to reclaim his old home and leave the women destitute and without a home or a place for their business.
Aziz goes on to meet old friends, Rahmat and Younes, who relate to him what has happened in the town during his long absence.  They are interested to know whether Aziz is going to meet up with Atieh, but Aziz shrinks from the idea – “I’m scared she’ll tell me to get lost,” he says.  We eventually learn that Aziz’s absence from the town is associated with his having been jailed more than twenty-two years earlier (they refer to him as having been a “revolutionary”, so he was presumably jailed for political reasons after the revolution).  His well-to-do father had managed to buy his son’s liberty and get him out of the country by selling the family factory to Rahmat.  Also at the time of Aziz’s arrest, Atieh’s father, in order to stifle “gossip” about his daughter and Aziz, had  forced her to marry the first available suitor. 
This is the first mention of “gossip”, which is referenced several times in the film. I take this referent to be a veiled codeword for the oppressive conservative social forces and attendant pervasive surveillance that one must always be mindful of in Iran ever since the revolution.

We also learn that after several years of a loveless marriage, Atieh’s abusive husband had disappeared in his fishing boat, leaving her alone with her six-year-old daughter, Touka.  Afterwards, Atieh had then opened her restaurant in order to make ends meet.

It further turns out that the Reza we already saw and who was arrested in the early Prologue section is Touka’s fiancé.  Aziz knows that Reza is in jail, but noone else seems to know about Reza’s whereabouts.

The scenes with Aziz in this section are interspersed with scenes of the four women merrily bustling about in the kitchen of their popular restaurant and enthusiastically serving their customers.  When Aziz shows up at the restaurant, though, Atieh, defensive about having used his home for more than a decade, assures him that they will all soon clear out of his house and that he can immediately occupy an upstairs bedroom.
So the stage is set, and issues must be resolved.  Are Aziz and Atieh going to renew their old love affair?  Or is Aziz going to go through with his plans to reclaim his old house and force the women out?  What will be the fate of Touka and her jailed fiancé, Reza?

3.  Plans and Preparations
This section of the film indicates that further steps are being taken, but it is unclear what will happen.  Aziz has decided to stay awhile in the town, and the main motivation for this is his concern about Reza’s fate, which reminds him of his own arrest some twenty years earlier.  Aziz secures the services of a lawyer, but his legal intentions are unclear (although the women assume that it is associated with Aziz’s reclamation of his house).  Aziz also discovers, thanks to his friend Younes, that he still owns a hillside cabin outside of town, which he had years ago  promised to his fiancé Atieh to be their married home.
Nevertheless, under the sway of Touka’s romantic optimism, the four women do what they can to comfort the shy and taciturn Aziz by serving him delicious meals every day. But when Aziz visits the restaurant for a serious discussion about the house, the over-stressed Atieh faints and has to be taken to the hospital.

4. Going Home
With Atieh away in the hospital, Touka and the ladies continue to serve delicious meals to Aziz, and they gradually get to know each other better.  When Atieh comes home from the hospital, the four women and Aziz begin dining together and the social ice has been broken.  Aziz seems to be such a genial gentleman; he couldn’t really be intending to turn the women out of his house, could he? 

But when Aziz’s lawyer shows up at the restaurant while Aziz is away, Atieh fears the worst.  She tells Aziz off when she sees him and accuses him of once again letting her down and leaving her miserable.  Stung and silenced by her vituperation, Aziz returns to his room and prepares to leave.

In the final scene, Reza is seen to have been released from prison, and he arrives at the Restaurant and rings the doorbell. Meanwhile Atieh goes to Aziz’s upstairs room the next day and sees that he has departed.  Then in the final shots she is seen driving her truck, with considerable doubt and trepidation, towards Aziz’s family cabin.
The story of The Fish Fall in Love is really about the fear of expressing love in the face of possible rejection. Aziz, once confined in prison (as was Rafie), is no longer the “revolutionary” that he was in his youth.  Life’s disappointments have apparently worn him down.  He is now like the farmed fish, not the fearless “lover” fish who swims upstream.  There is a telling conversation that he has with Touka in the third section of the film.  Touka, grieving about the disappearance of Reza, says that she is crying a bellyful of tears.
"You know the luckiest people are those who know how to sob a bellyful of tears”.
“Can I ask a question?”

“If it’s an easy one.”

“Why didn’t you come home after you got out of prison?”

“I did come back, but noone was waiting for me.   I wanted to forget everything.”

“And did you forget?”

“What would you have done in my position?”

“That depends on how much I loved her.”

“Or how much she loves you.”
Aziz here reveals his own vulnerability and focus on his own losses – he felt rejected when he return for the town years ago and discovered that Atieh was married.  He realizes that Atieh will probably never forgive him for abandoning her – even if he had been forced to leave the country by circumstances outside of his control.  Atieh, too, is fearful of expressing her true feelings to Aziz.  She feels that in the male-dominated society with which she has had to struggle to survive, Aziz is just another male ready to reclaim what belongs to him.  She has managed to survive over the years by her own hard work and expressing herself in the best way that she could.  In Iran, as in many countries around the world, the preparation of food can serve as a significant form of personal expression for women, whose wider self-expression is curtailed in other dimensions (for a further example of such culinary self-expression, see Dariush Mehrjui's 1992 film, Sara).

The young people in the film, Touka and Reza, are much less timid.  This is particularly true of Touka, who sustains the film’s narrative energy and who is effectively portrayed by the beautiful and spirited Golfshifteh Farahani.  Touka is the fearless fish, daringly dashing about the town and into customary male-oriented environments in search Reza’s whereabouts.  It is she who counsels her mother at one point when the two of them are observing Aziz and the other women from a distance, “Aziz needs love, Mother”.

The fear of expressing one’s love is confounded by the further fear of expressing oneself in the face of an oppressive social climate.  In such a climate one often only knows little pieces of the truth, and one must guess the rest.  As viewers of the film, we are placed in the same situation of making guesses.  There are clearly cultural limits to what Rafie is able express in his story, so we have to make some further guesses.  It is quite possible Aziz and Atieh may have had premarital sex back in those old days and that Atieh had been pregnant at the time of Aziz's banishment.  This would explain why Atieh’s father had to marry his daughter off immediately. It would also mean that Touka is actually Aziz’s daughter.

As for what Aziz actually did with his lawyer, we can at least guess that Aziz sold his house to buy Reza’s freedom from jail, just as his father had done for him many years earlier. Speculating further and from the point of view of practical likelihoods, you might make the guess that Aziz, seeing that Atieh has no love for him, has headed back to Tehran alone.

But if you are more romantically fired, like Touka, you will see it another way.  Aziz, not having the fortitude to make a passionate expression of love, has left it up to Atieh to decide whether she truly wants him.  He has left the house (which he has just sold) and gone to the cabin to see if Atieh will come to him.  And, indeed, Atieh does come.  So it turns out that Atieh, more than Aziz, is the passionate fish that swims upstream.

For my taste, this film is a bit too roundabout and dispassionate.  What passion there is comes not from Aziz, but from the women, like Atieh and Touka.  This is not the only Iranian film I have seen in which the women have more emotional fortitude than the men.  They are the often the fearless lovers willing to take the risks of swimming against the current.


Shayna said...

Your review is excellent and much appreciated!

Bosteye said...

I really appreciated your in-depth review. Thank you! I did have a question. I thought that Aziz's lawyer left a phone message with Atieh for Aziz to say that the title had been approved. And that seemed to lead Atieh to assume that the title was for Aziz's house where their restaurant resided and it meant that Aziz would be reclaiming their house and so she accuses him of leading her on. She never gave Aziz a chance to explain what that message was about. It could have been he changed the title to her name or it could mean that the title had to do with the cabin that he also owned. Maybe he sold it to pay the lawyer to free Reza from prison. This review has left me thinking more deeply about this movie. Thank you very much for writing it.