Groundless suspicion

"The Fish Fall In Love": Ali Rafii's visually delightful post-modern work


Groundless suspicion
by Ari Siletz
The main theme of The Fish Fall In Love ("Mahiha ashegh mishavand" directed by Ali Rafii) is so familiar to the Iranian viewer that few of us may complain about its plot making no sense. Or if the viewer is not Iranian, he/she may adopt a post-modern disregard for plot logic and concentrate on the clearest message of the film: suspicion destroys our best hopes.

Newly freed political prisoner, Aziz, (Reza Kianian) sneaks back to his Caspian hometown to find his fiancée, Atieh, has been married off. Philosophical about life, he sneaks back out to roam the planet doing we know not what. These events happen years before the movie begins. In the opening scene Aziz drifts back into his hometown again, seeking nothing in particular. But a purpose finds him when he discovers he is in a position to help his ex-fiancée’s beautiful daughter, Touka (Gholshifteh Farahani). In a parallel between the generations, Touka’s fiancée has also been jailed, and she too has been misled to think her man has frivolously abandoned her.

The reasons for the deceptions are different. Touka is misinformed by her fiancee’s best friend because he wants her for himself. Atieh on the other hand took the word of Aziz's father who lied to save face. Likely Atieh's own father encouraged this lie “for her own good.” He wouldn’t want her wasting her youth waiting for Aziz. How they got away with this lie in a tiny town where Aziz has close friends, we are not to question. The characters, however, are free to indulge in outrageous skepticism. Touka’s jailed fiancée for instance, thinks Aziz has hired him a lawyer just to botch the criminal case against him. He suspects the middle-aged Aziz has fallen in love with young Touka and wants to eliminate rivals. Aziz in turn frustrates us with his stoic silence against this accusation.

The most frustrating moment of Aziz’s stoicism, however, happens when Aziz and Atieh (Roya Nonahali) meet. He says nothing to clarify why he disappeared from her life. In fact he says nothing at all, because Atieh yells at him to shut up and listen while she guilt trips him about showing up after all these years to ruin her restaurant business. After her husband’s death, she has moved into the property abandoned by Aziz’s family, and set up a restaurant there. Now, she thinks, Aziz is there to reclaim the property and evict her. The presence of a lawyer in the picture convinces her of this.

Atieh’s suspicion is unfounded. Aziz had no idea anyone was squatting in his property, or even seemed to care, but he is in no hurry to make this clear, or to explain about the lawyer. Nor does he ask Atieh what went on with her during all these years. Instead he asks a friend who tells him Atieh’s husband beat her senseless one night then took a rowboat out to sea never to return.

The domestic quarrel and the suicide are not explained, but this revelation along with subtle line deliveries by Reza Kianian invites us to guess at more reasonable directions the plot may have taken if censors hadn’t been watching: Aziz and Atieh had premarital sex. Touka may be Aziz’s daughter. This is why Atieh’s husband went nuts, and this is why Aziz and Touka hold each other in such deep affection.

Now that the characters’ behaviors have found a sensible basis, we see that Atieh's father had no choice but to quickly find a husbad for his pregnant daughter. Atieh’s moving into Aziz’s house with her child, and the issue over property rights suddenly picks up considerably more logical as well as social and dramatic substance. Reza Kianian’s artistry helps cut through some of the fog. In the scene where he and Touka first meet, he is multifaceted with his line delivery. “Are you Touka?” he says, and we can't be sure if he's responding to Touka's flirting or enjoying getting to know her after all these years. At a later dinner table scene, his line delivery of “Now that we are all together,” has a strong flavor of paternity. The sense of this alternate plot is strongest when Aziz confides in a friend, “Atieh acts as though we never…”
But director Ali Rafii (Fined by IRI in 2002 for "promoting immoral conduct" in a play ) knows such a film would never see the light of the projector. Instead censorship has left him with a confusing movie vulnerable to banal panderings to the male-bashing market. This has resulted in inaccurate plot descriptions such as: “Atieh’s singular passion is food, and her small but popular restaurant on the sleepy Caspian coast is her pride and joy. But when Aziz, a former lover, appears after a twenty-year absence with the intention of closing the restaurant, Atieh prepares his favorite dishes, one after the other, in a desperate effort to convince him otherwise. Loosely based on the Persian fable of Shahrazad and the Thousand Myths (A Thousand and One Nights), director Ali Raffi uses the language of food to paint a richly textured portrait of life and love on the Southern coast of Iran [sic].”

Never mind that the above description has a Google sense of geography; it also gives no clue that the Shahrzad theme and the pretty food are just marketing candy. Yet, despite the silent compromises Rafii seems to have made to censorship and international marketing, his message about the destructiveness of groundless suspicion comes through, and makes a powerful emotional impact.

Reza Kianian’s interpretative skill as an actor encourages us to be patient with the film’s frustratingly stoic compromises, and view it for the moment as a visually delightful post-modern work. One day, after a thousand and one such tales, the censors may relent.


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Ari Siletz

For Anonymouse

by Ari Siletz on

You are in good company believeing that Iranian artists' ancient skill at sneaking ideas past the censor is a fine art in itself. Abbas Kiarostami has said as much himself. Sadly, however Kiarostami's films have not been shown in Iran for quite some time. 

See pages 18-27 of this  fact oriented and well documented update on Iran film censorship. For those interested, the article includes a comprehensive list of official moral codes, the distinction between art houses and popular theaters, how domestic and international film versions differ, etc. 


Cafe Transit

by Anonymouse on

Thanks Ari for the tip.  Cafe Transit.  I shall look for it. Good to know it has good food shots like Fish.  I remember the review but didn't get the chance to see it.  There are so many movies I want to see.  So much to do, so little time!

Ari Siletz

For Party Girl

by Ari Siletz on

I'm glad the review makes you want to see the movie. I saw the film on the screen last year in LA and again this year on DVD. Not sure about authorization--how do you tell? Here's where you can buy a copy.    Anonymouse is right about the food. You'll feel hungry after the movie. Fortunately "Fish" is not the only Iranian movie with edible cinematography. Here 's a review of another Iranian movie with amazing food shots. 


Chained by censorship

by Anonymouse on

Critic jan, please see my comments again and note that I said I've seen enough movies to say that they have touched on just about any topic. That is an art in and of itself.  Many of us Iranians found these kind of art much more interesting that something that can be said easily in an American democracy for example. 

Every film maker in Iran knows that there is censorship.  I have not seen a single film maker who says there isn't.  Did you see Marmolak (the lizard)?  That movie lampooned the entire clergy and it became the most popular movie of ALL time.  So much so that the clergy pulled it off after only couple weeks of showing, only to make it more popular and people buying it off black market.  There are many movies who touch the taboo subjects, really many.  The only suggestion I can make is to see a few.  Start with this one.

Party Girl, Ari can speak for himself but I saw it in a theatre in America.  I think it was authorized/approved release.  The quality was very good, perhaps that made the restaurant scenes that much more interesting.  I don't recall seeing any movie that covered food and restaurant like this one.  I like Ari's review here but for me, all I can say is the food, the food, the food!  So good that we HAD to go to an Iranian restaurant afterwards and eat something!

Party Girl

Thank you.

by Party Girl on

Thank you for this interesting review.  Makes me want to see the movie, Mr. Siletz.  Did you see it on DVD or on screen?  If on DVD, is it an authorized release?



by Anonymous Critic (not verified) on

Dear anonymouse, you are quite clear in your opinion that Iranian film makers are not chained by censorship and are free to make films about any subject however taboo.

Yet you also write that the film 'Offside' didn't get permission to be shown. Doesn't the fact that 'Offside' didn't get permission to be shown mean that censorship does exist and certain subjects are off limits to Iranian film makers? In truth there are subjects that are off limits to every film maker and censorship exists everywhere.


I saw this movie. One of the best.

by Anonymouse on

It was one of the best Iranian movies I've seen and for me the best parts were actually the restaurant scenes and the way they showed the making and eating of the food.  They sort of were saying we can resolve all problems over a good meal and who could argue with them after seeing those scenes!  So .... you have to see it!

This is one of the movies I am planning to make sure we see with my family when I go back for another visit.  The food scenes were excellent, I can't stress that enough.

The plot of the movie was great.  One of the things about Iranian movies that I hear people say after they see them is how can they show these things in Iran? Aren't these taboos? I've seen enough Iranian movies to say that they have touched on just about any topic and nothing is taboo.

I believe it all has to do on how the director or film maker makes the movie.  That in and of itself is an art.  In Offside the film maker even talks about the censorship and why his movie didn't get permission.  So even the "censorship" topic itself is not taboo.

It is a great movie.