A sign of a highly patriarchal society is the persistence of a dowry, literally putting the price on love. Perhaps intended for good reasons — after all, the woman may not work and need some financial assurance — it reduces their hand in marriage to a question of economics.
For the young Amir (Hamid Reza Abbasi) in Karlovy Vary Crystal Globe contender Empty Nets (Behrooz Karamizade, 2023), in love with the beautiful Narges (Sad Asgari), his poor financial standing pushes him further and further into the murky underworld of the Iranian fishing industry. It’s dutifully portrayed by first-time feature director Karamizade, splitting the difference between a traditional Iranian social drama and an inquisitive look at the corruption that makes true wealth possible. A film composed of small gestures yet wide panoramas, intimate reflections and epic implications, it fails to balance its state-of-the-nation address with convincing social drama.
Abbasi plays Amir as an inquisitive, passionate young fellow, but also a restrained, careful one, always watching, observing, ready to make his next move. In a bravura opening gambit, he shows off his ability to hold his breath underwater for long periods of time, considerably stressing Narges out. Although never openly stated, there’s a sense she comes from a higher class than Amir, with silent men from Tehran driving in to offer their hand in marriage. Marriage, unlike love, comes at a high price — the central question is if Amir can find a way to match them.
After being unfairly dismissed from his wedding events job, he drives on his scooter down the coast — caught in gorgeous wide frames that drown him in a swathe of murky blue — to take work at a fishery, run by the mysterious Ghasem (Behzad Dorani). In these moments Empty Nets comes alive, shooting real fish being pulled out by the ton, dredged up on the coast amidst plastic bags and cans. Amir dutifully cleans up the rubbish, only to be told to throw it back in the water.
Even more exciting is the fish market, awash in fresh produce straight from the Caspian Sea. While Hollywood subs in nearly all animals for CGI recreations these days, seeing the real thing in a fiction film provides a certain thrill; an escape from lazy half-measures; an embrace of lived-in reality. The issue for Amir is that his salary deducts room and board, leading him to put his swimming abilities to the test in the illegal poaching market.
Having set us up with a tantalising clash between social norms and the ways man can shortcut his way to the top, Empty Nets keeps pushing the story out to sea and keeps coming up with fewer and fewer returns. Particularly underdeveloped is his relationship with Narges, which never really gives us much to hold on to. We know she doesn’t appreciate the situation too much, but she barely pushes back or analyses it herself, making her far too simple for such a knotty premise. A further plot-line involving fellow fisherman Omid (Keyvan Mohamadi), a writer on the run from the authorities, shoehorns in more social commentary, allowing for easy resolution while avoiding confrontation with the issue head-on. Flowing with rich ideas and a keenly-felt locale, Empty Nets eventually comes up, well, empty.