Karlovy Vary 2023 review: Empty Nets (Behrooz Karamizade)

“It is a tale as old as time, but Karamizade’s lean and calm approach hits most of the marks, making Empty Nets an excellent debut that has plenty under the surface to chew on.”

Star-crossed lovers have been a recurring theme in art since even before William Shakespeare coined the term in the prologue of perhaps the best-known example of doomed relationships. For his debut feature Empty Nets Iranian-born but Germany-based director Behrooz Karamizade uses the premise of two lovers from different social environments to explore a divide between classes in contemporary Iran. Premiering at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, where it eventually won a Special Jury prize, this gritty and gloomy drama offers a strong message combined with fine writing and excellent lensing in what is a very promising debut that, given its accessibility and the universality of its premise, could have a run outside the festival circuit.

A love life is complex in modern day Iran, where working-class Amir (Hamid Reza Abbasi) is determined to marry his clandestine girlfriend Narges (Sadaf Asgari), the hefty dowry demanded by her well-off parents be damned. These plans get more complicated as Amir, through no fault of his own, loses his job; his first lesson that standing up to those above you more often gets you in trouble than not. He is forced to take a job in a fishery on the Caspian Sea, far away from his beloved. What lands him the job are his excellent swimming skills, as evidenced in the opening scenes when he has a secret beach-side tryst with Narges. The work is hard and the pay is low, but Amir quickly figures out that Ghasem, the owner of the outfit, is also involved in some fishy business: the illegal poaching of sturgeon to harvest its caviar, which finds its way into upscale restaurants in the city, the kind of restaurant Narges’ parents might frequent; also the kind of restaurant Amir with his background as the son of a single mom (Pantea Panahiha) has never seen the inside of. Amir works his way into this more profitable business, forever with his eyes on the prize: the chance to ask for Narges’ hand. But as the distance between them and the demands of his job slowly see the two lovers drifting apart, time starts running out when her parents are close to finding a more suitable potential husband.

Shot by DP Ashkan Ashkani, best known for his work on Mohammad Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil, the film heavily employs filtering to paint Amir’s world in shades of steely, industrial greys when it’s not enveloped in the dark of the underwater world; it is here that Ashkani’s cinematography is most impressive, the ominous nets that Amir has to clear waste from becoming a metaphor for the illegal trappings that he increasingly becomes entangled in. The film is sober, and so is its look, the few dabs of brightness provided by Narges’ outfits. As she slowly drifts from the story, so does the colour, punctuating the drab world of Iran’s working class and the divide from those more fortunate. Karamizade raises a plethora of social issues besides the lack of upward mobility: the exploitation of workers prominently figures in the fishery environment, though Amir’s early firing from a catering business is another example. A subplot involving a writer who tries to stay below the surface in fear of the authorities, hoping to reach Azerbaijan on the other side of the sea, highlights both the issues of human trafficking and the lack of intellectual freedom in current day Iran.

Empty Nets, despite its muted tone and quite depressing narrative, is a strong debut for Karamizade. The film is less overtly political than the works of some of the better known (in the West) Iranian auteurs, but reading between the lines the message is pretty clear. At times he makes it explicit, having a character spit out that Iran is ‘a country of dead ends’, and making Amir’s constant quest for money a theme that runs through the film. Financial means are dividing Iran, Karamizade argues, when those who have them should look at the have-nots in ways beyond how much they can bring into the transaction. Looking at it from a different angle, the industrious and warm-hearted (at least initially) Amir is, to stick with the fishing terms, a ‘good catch’ for Narges, but all her parents see is a lack of funding. It is a tale as old as time, but Karamizade’s lean and calm approach hits most of the marks, making Empty Nets an excellent debut that has plenty under the surface to chew on, and it isn’t the sturgeon.