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Like a Fish on the Moon

Four-and-a-half-year-old mysteriously stops talking, leaving his devoted parents desperately scrambling for answers - live from the 22nd Transylvania International Film Festival


This starts out as a promising movie with an intriguing premise. A friendly psychologist poses various questions to the tiny Ilya (Ali Ahmadi): “won’t you please tell me your name?”, “Will you please talk to me?”, “Could you please tell me what happened?”, and so on. The camera focuses solely on Ahmadi’s complex expressions. He does not utter a word, his body language suggesting perplexity blended with fear. There is nothing to suggest that he is physically ill, His doting parents Haleh (Sepidar Tari) and Amir (Shahdyar Shakiba) are genuinely puzzled and confused. They have no idea what triggered such condition, which the mental health doctor describes as “selective mutism”.

The doctor also questions Haleh and Amir, and scrutinises their relationship. They reveal that love each other, however they are not as passionate as when they first met. Just like your average couple. They seem genuine. This isn’t Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless (2017), about a child who drifts from his parents due to the sheer alienation from each other. The doctor then comes up with a very bizarre solution: Haleh should stop caring for her child, allowing his father to look after him instead. That’s because the psychologist suspects that the child may be excessively attached to his mother, and jealous of his father. I doubt such “treatment” has any medical value, sounding instead more like a clumsy triggering event for the ensuing narrative arc.

The parents abide, but tension soon begins to build. The new lifestyle approach takes its toll on Haleh and Amir hitherto functional relationship. Haleh misses interacting with her son, and soon throws the efficacy of the treatment into doubt. A different clinician affirms that a child of such young age could not experience selective mutism. Haleh sets out to investigate other causes, taking the soon to the local hospital. The scenes that follow are barely credible, unless Iranian medical protocols were created by a madman on dope. A kerfuffle during an MRI scan is particularly poorly staged. What started out as potentially gripping drama has now inevitably slipped into silliness. And there’s hardly time for the story to pick itself up again. To boot, the film is dogged by strange cuts and a clunky music score. The only hope is that the ending offer an emotionally gripping and narratively coherent closure. Such is not the case.

Overall, Like a Fish on the Moon is a missed opportunity. It could have achieved something similar to Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. The profoundly humanistic 2011 film skilfully uses a child whose allegiance is split between their two parents as a potent gauge of the country’s family and cultural values. Dornaz Hajiha’s film does little but to observe the mental collapse of two adults (namely: the haggling) without much regard to plausibility and dramatic impact. It has little concern for humanism, something Iranian filmmakers tend to do remarkably well.

The director is one of the few women filmmakers of Iran who has been neither arrested nor banned from making movies. The country has a shocking record on women’s rights, and it criminalises films that “promote” feminism. Maryam Ebrahimvand was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2018 for making a film deemed “vulgar”. Mozhgan Ilanlu was sentenced to 74 lashes and nearly 10 years imprisonment just last December for making part in the Mahsa Amini protests.

Like a Fish on the Moon is in the Official Competition of the 22nd Transylvania International Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 16-06-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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