Locarno 2022 review: Sermon to the Fish (Hilal Baydarov)

“This all converges into the film’s precise portrayal of the deterioration of the human spirit in times of hopelessness, blending bleak nihilism with stoic realism to create a vivid and disturbing account of post-war trauma.”

Nothing erodes the human spirit more than war, which has been well-documented across countless works of art that endeavour to explore the true nature of conflict, both on the battlefield and in more intimate spaces. One such work comes in the form of Sermon to the Fish (Balıqlara xütbə), a compelling film written and directed by Hilal Baydarov, who looks at a soldier returning to his small village in Azerbaijan, which he finds almost entirely abandoned, with the few remnants of its previous occupants indicating that they have either fled or fallen victim to the terror of warfare themselves, leading him to question his own intrinsic humanity in the process of coming to terms with the trauma he witnessed while fighting for a questionable cause. Baydarov pulls together various complex ideas and filters them through the lens of this actively engaging, deeply meaningful work of complex artistry, one of the most haunting examples of an existential drama made on the subject of war, akin to many powerful anti-propaganda films that tend to emerge in periods of unrest – and the poignancy with which these ideas are explored throughout Sermon to the Fish makes this a fascinating document of a man driven to the edge of sanity simply through making the long journey home, only to find it has become devoid of everything he left behind.

War is rarely portrayed as something that should be celebrated (with the exception of the occasional case of jingoistic patriotism, which is rarely embraced artistically), with the majority of works centred on conflict being deeply harrowing. Much of this is drawn from the general concept of the wounds left by war, both physical and psychological. Baydarov explores the idea that conflict is not restricted to tangible battles fought by soldiers, but can extend to the post-war period as well, which forms the foundation for Sermon to the Fish, a film that explores what it means to walk away physically unscathed, but deeply disturbed by the experiences encountered during this violent sojourn. The idea of homecoming is one that film has often explored as being cathartic, a return to normality that may take some time to adjust, but ultimately becomes an integral part of assimilating back into society. This film asserts an entirely different idea – what if a soldier returns from war, only to find his home a barren wasteland? The desolate landscapes we see throughout the film reflect the unhinged despair felt by the few people left behind, who find themselves holding onto a past that is rapidly slipping away from them, while being haunted by ghosts of the past (both literal and metaphorical, depending on how we interpret the more abstract elements of the film), which linger through this village that has been almost entirely abandoned.

This all creates a disconcerting narrative that provokes more questions than answers, which is where the director is most intent on keeping our attention. More than anything else, Sermon to the Fish aims to be a careful examination of a particular time and place, which is where the overarching theme of returning home manifests most prominently. The film is driven less by plot, and instead is propelled mostly by the atmosphere – the story moves at a glacial pace (to the point where there are entire scenes that are silent, stagnant shots), but it serves a very particular purpose, especially in relation to the recurring concept of decomposition, the constant reference to how these bodies are “rotting” being visceral but effective in conveying a particular sentiment. We observe these characters gradually succumbing to their internal turmoil, which is only exacerbated by the feeling of isolation they experience in seeing their home torn apart as a result of the war. Whether this is meant to be taken literally or as an allegory is up to the viewer’s interpretation, but there is something quite valuable in how the film approaches this extraordinarily complex subject matter in a way that is straightforward and unfurnished, allowing space for these bold ideas to unravel organically, which leads to a more powerful and insightful story.

Sermon to the Fish proves that even when history is written by the victor (as the protagonist was fighting on the side that ultimately emerged victorious), the results are often extraordinarily disconcerting. This is a curiously engaging character study, with the performances by Orkhan Iskandarli and Rana Asgarova (as essentially the only two characters in the film) anchoring the story, allowing the director the space to explore different experiences of war, namely in the form of a soldier returning home, and the last-surviving civilian that is tasked with not only welcoming him back, but also helping him assimilate back into a society that does not even exist any longer, holding onto her own sanity in the process. This all converges into the film’s precise portrayal of the deterioration of the human spirit in times of hopelessness, blending bleak nihilism with stoic realism to create a vivid and disturbing account of post-war trauma, not only on the psyche of the people involved in a war (whether directly or by mere proxy), but also on places, which can be irrevocably changed by war. Sermon to the Fish is a provocative metaphysical drama that allows us to engage with a wider set of themes, while simultaneously challenging us to expand our own perception, since there is a deeper message that cannot be put directly into words, but rather has to be experienced first-hand by this disquieting human drama.