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Sermon to The Fish (Balıqlara xütbə)

Director - Hilal Baydarov - 2022

"Mostly clean movie"
A study of life after war, Sermon to The Fish boasts technically stunning visuals but is in service of an emotionally inert story — live from Locarno.


Even if you win a war, what do you gain? Many soldiers have died, the economy is adversely affected and the remaining people have to live with survivor’s guilt. This is the question Sermon to The Fish, an Azeri film set in the aftermath of the war with Armenia in Nagorno-Karabakh, grapples with, a sincere arthouse attempt to depict the way war rots you from the inside, both figuratively, and also quite literally.

It’s a slow and static film, shot in the mountain and the desert, filled with silence, foreboding landscapes and characters taking their time to move from A to B. The oil fields are still pumping, but the lakes are drying up; the fish of the title seem to have disappeared alongside most of the men Not much happens in between, director Hilal Baydarov taking a contemplative approach in depicting his protagonists mired in endless stasis.

Davud (Orkhan Iskandarli) has returned from the war. If he was happy about the victory, he never shows it on his face, which is set to permanent resignation. His sister (Rana Asgarova) tells him that everyone else in the village has completely rotted, a metaphor for the way war impacts even those who claim to be victorious. She is equally sad, narrating the tale in a somber tone, the film infused with a religious, reverent feeling. As it progresses, she slowly covers up more of her body, the tenets of Islam interacting with a sense of self-loathing to an interesting degree, the subtleties of which may have been lost on me.

As a technical exercise, there is a lot to enjoy in this feature. The use of surround sound evokes memories that aren’t there but cannot be escaped, from the chatter of now dead soldiers to the bombs and gunfire of battle. We are immersed in the world of these characters, often shot The Searchers-like (John Ford, 1956) through windows, tiny shafts of light against an otherwise compressed and black frame. But beauty and craft alone cannot power what is often a repetitive and uninteresting text, relying entirely on its poetic framework to carry the experience. The long takes, especially the stunning final shot, are highly impressive, but there’s nothing here that couldn’t have been told in a more compact short film.

Baydarov has created a brave, critical film, scrubbing away nationalism to see what is left for day-to-day people after going through such difficult experiences. It will probably never play in Azerbaijan itself, but should have a modest festival run. Nonetheless, the inertness of the characters certainly seeps into the film itself, which shows little signs of life. While the characters often stay fixed in frame, like they are posing for a life drawing, a dog bounds in and out of the frame. Whether he has been trained or is simply reacting like a dog to the events of the film, he is the one source of animation and emotion that kept me invested in the film’s long, static stakes. Perhaps it helps that he doesn’t know about the war.

Sermon to the Fish plays in the Concorso internazionale section as part of the Locarno Film Festival, running from 3-13th August.

"Mostly clean movie"

By Redmond Bacon - 10-08-2022

By Redmond Bacon - 10-08-2022

Redmond’s tastes are pretty diverse – from the neglected cop classic Tango and Cash (Andrei Konchalovsky,1989) the lesbian drama Show Me Love (Lukas Moodysson, 1998) to Scorsese’s best film:...

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