‘Empty Nets’ Review: Impressive Feature Debut Is a Gritty Iranian Gut Punch About a Financially Desperate Man

A gritty slice of neorealism that would have fit in perfectly during the peak period of the Iranian New Wave, Empty Nets (Leere Netze) marks an impressive feature debut for Iranian German filmmaker Behrooz Karamizade. Premiering at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, this drama about a financially impoverished twentysomething desperately attempting to earn the money he needs to marry his girlfriend packs an enduring punch.

When we’re introduced to Amir (Hamid Reza Abbasi), he’s deeply in love with both the sea, in which he’s seen playfully frolicking like a dolphin in an early scene, and his girlfriend Narges (a radiant Sadaf Asgari), who obviously shares his affections. It also becomes clear that he’s a young man of integrity when he loses his job at a catering hall after loudly objecting to his boss’ decision to cancel a wedding at the last minute because of unpaid fees.

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Narges, who works in a bakery from which she’s constantly bringing Amir treats, comes from an upper-class family. This creates a problem, since her parents are expecting a significant amount of money from Amir for their daughter’s hand. Even his single mother (Pantea Panahihia) tries to dissuade him from getting married. Unable to find work locally due to the region’s dire financial climate, Amir resorts to accepting a job at a fishery located a significant distance away on the northern Caspian Sea coast, necessitating lengthy separations from Narges.

It’s clear from his arrival that the fishery is a shady operation, with its owner demanding money for Amir’s food and board in advance. When the nets pull in large amounts of plastic and other refuse from the sea along with the fish, Amir gets reprimanded for attempting to dispose of it properly. He’s instructed to throw it back in the sea, since it’s already full of garbage. Then, when he gets his first paycheck, he discovers that more money has been withheld.

Nonetheless, he excels at the work thanks to his strong swimming abilities and even manages to earn some extra cash competing in an eel-catching gambling competition. When he figures out that the fishery is poaching endangered sturgeon and involved in the black-market caviar trade, he volunteers to participate despite the dangerous underwater work involved. (Be advised that the film, which includes footage of fish being gutted for their eggs, may turn you off caviar forever.)

The pressure on Amir gets more intense when he discovers that Narges’ father is having her meet a wealthy young man with a view to an arranged marriage. So despite Amir’s initial reservations, he agrees to smuggle a co-worker (Kevyan Mohamadi) out of the country in a small boat during highly dangerous weather conditions.

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

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

Empty Nets becomes particularly moving in its portrait of the increasingly strained relationship between the two young lovers as Narges becomes disillusioned with the man Amir is becoming. It makes for a gut punch of a film.

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