'Empty Nets' review: Impressive feature film debut is an Iranian gut punch on a financially desperate man

‘Empty Nets’ review: Impressive feature film debut is an Iranian gut punch on a financially desperate man

A gritty slice of neorealism that would have fit perfectly during the peak period of the Iranian New Wave, Empty networks (empty networks) marks an impressive feature debut for Iranian German director Behrooz Karamizade. Premiering at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, this drama about an economically impoverished 20-year-old desperately trying to earn the money he needs to marry his girlfriend has an enduring punch.

When we are introduced to Amir (Hamid Reza Abbasi), he is deeply in love both with the sea, in which he is seen playfully playing as a dolphin in one of the first scenes, and with his girlfriend Narges (a radiant Sadaf Asgari), who obviously shares his affected. It also becomes clear that he is a young man of integrity when he loses his job at a catering hall after loudly objecting to his boss’s decision to cancel a wedding at the last minute due to unpaid taxes.

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Empty networks

The bottom line

Socially conscious neorealism at its best.

Place: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Crystal Globe Competition)
Launch: Hamid Reza Abbasi, Sadaf Asgari, Keyvan Mohamadi, Pantea Panahiha, Ali Bagheri, Behzad Dorani, Mehrdad Bakhshi, Mojtaba Bahmani, Ali Mohseni
Director-writer: Behrooz Karamizade

1 hour and 41 minutes

Narges, who works in a bakery from which Amir constantly brings sweets, comes from an upper-class family. This creates a problem, since her parents expect a significant amount of money from Amir for their daughter’s hand. His single mother (Pantea Panahihia) also tries to dissuade him from getting married. Unable to find work locally due to the region’s dire financial climate, Amir decides to take a job at a fishery located a significant distance on the northern coast of the Caspian Sea, which requires long separations from Narges.

It is clear from his arrival that the fishery is a shady operation, with its owner demanding money in advance for Amir’s food and living. When the nets draw large quantities of plastic and other waste from the sea along with the fish, Amir is reprimanded for trying to dispose of it properly. He is ordered to throw it back into the sea, as he is already full of rubbish. Then, when he receives his first paycheck, he discovers that more money has been withheld from him.

However, he excels at the job due to his strong swimming skills and even manages to earn some extra cash by participating in a gambling contest to catch eels. When he discovers the fishery is poaching endangered sturgeon and involved in the black market caviar trade, he volunteers to participate despite the dangerous underwater work involved. (Keep in mind that the film, which includes footage of fish being gutted for their eggs, may shut you down from caviar forever.)

The pressure on Amir intensifies when he discovers that Narges’ father is setting her up with a rich young man with a view to an arranged marriage. So despite Amir’s initial reservations, she agrees to smuggle a colleague (Kevyan Mohamadi) out of the country on a small boat in very dangerous weather conditions.

Lead actor Abbasi powerfully conveys Amir’s gradual transformation from a carefree and morally upright young man to someone desperate to do whatever it takes not to lose his bride-to-be.

Along the way, writer-director Karamizade provides a vivid sociological snapshot of the country’s difficult financial environment, including rampant corruption and high unemployment, forcing its people to resort to extreme measures to survive. Iranian DP veteran Ashkan Ashkani’s expertly gloomy and cloudy cinematography contributes greatly to the oppressive atmosphere of the film, as does the realistic depiction of the brutally harsh conditions under which Amir works. The film gets steadily darker, both visually and figuratively, as those all-too-allegorical fishing nets, which at one point pull in a dead body, seem to engulf its struggling protagonist.

Empty networks it becomes especially moving in its portrayal of the increasingly strained relationship between the two young lovers as Narges becomes disillusioned with the man Amir is becoming. He’s a punch in the gut of a movie.