Lodged somewhere between a dream and a nightmare, Iranian filmmaker Shahram Mokri’s Fish & Cat invites scrutiny by design: The film is constructed in a single, roving take that encompasses its entire runtime. Opening with a text preamble (based on a real-life case) about a restaurant that secretly served meat made from humans, the film establishes a latent suspense that one would assume has to climax at some point. But instead, Mokri, ably assisted by cinematographer Mahmud Kalari, creates hallucinatory, meandering scenelets, sometimes ratcheting up tension, but more often obfuscating it entirely. This diversion, or repression, of audience expectations makes the film a commendably surreal experience, but the overabundant display of theory in motion doesn’t translate into a wholly satisfying one. The film is a game: Mokri challenges his viewers to grip parallel narrative threads in what feels like suspiciously real time, rather than to assemble or contextualize any metaphorical ones.
Babak (Babak Karimi) and Saeed (Saeed Ebrahimifar), a pair of derelict cooks at an empty roadside restaurant, begin to notice young people streaming into their territory, one oblivious carpool at a time. The camera follows the pair as they plod through the woods, knives in hand, making wry small talk. Eventually a car pulls up; the driver, a hapless middle-aged man, is lost, and asks Saeed for directions, at which point Saeed begins pressuring him to buy gas from him at a discount rate, making the older man nervous. One could hardly be blamed for assuming Fish & Cat will make good on its implicit promise as a slasher film here, but instead the driver’s gawky teenage son Kambiz (Faraz Modiri) wanders a few steps away from the parked car, and enters into a reverie about his father’s lifelong obsession with a girl from his college days, and what it might mean for his parents’ relationship. By the time he returns, his father has a route figured out and both Babak and Saeed have continued along their way.
One by one, the characters—predominantly students from a nearby university, camping out for a lakeside kite festival—are introduced in contact with one another, either floating into occupied frames or dragging Kalari’s camera with them. One of them is stunned to encounter an old flame, since married to a French graphic designer and pregnant with his baby. She asks him how he missed the news, and the dejected young man replies that he’s left Facebook—and an interior monologue begins about reminiscence, hiding one’s identity online, and feeling ever more adrift from the past. These digressions are well-enough executed, sometimes even beautifully so, and give the film a Tolstoyesque quality. The cast’s ability to make each weird pocket of on-screen time feel natural is one of the film’s many strong accomplishments. But Fish & Cat is ultimately a logistical triumph, overstuffed with portent like a puzzle with no right arrangement: The viewers who strain to connect the dots will feel conned, and the ones who don’t will feel outright bored.