Do children learn from their parents, or do parents learn from their children?
“Like a Fish on the Moon,” the fourth installment of the 2023–24 Hirschfield International Film Series, examines this question by carrying the viewer through the life of an Iranian couple and their selectively-mute child. The film series returned to Middlebury this past October after over a year-long hiatus since May 2022.
The 2022 film was directed by Iranian filmmaker Dornaz Hajiha, who was in attendance at the Jan. 11 screening. Hajiha conducted a Q&A after the screening, allowing the audience to further develop their understanding about her project. It follows parents Haleh (Sepidar Tari) and Amir (Ali Ahmadi), along with their four-year-old son, Ilya, who has inexplicably stopped talking and responding to others.
The viewer is led directly into the life of the young family as their mundane daily routine becomes the primary ground for the film’s conflict. The plot centers on Ilya’s inability to speak and is developed by examining the effect of Ilya’s mutism on his parents and their own relationship.
The opening scene takes place in a psychiatrist’s office, as the doctor seeks to understand Ilya’s relationship with his parents. The scene reveals that Ilya is closer to his mother and has become dependent on her for his daily routine. Interestingly, Hajiha deliberately chooses to not reveal the face of the psychiatrist throughout the entire film, forcing the viewer to feast on just the emotion of Haleh, Amir and their son.
As the family leaves the psychiatrist’s office, the film sets up its primary conflict: Haleh being challenged by the psychiatrist to detach herself from Ilya and allow Amir to resume the duties she has been carrying out, including packing Ilya’s school bag to cooking his dinner, all in an attempt to forestall the child’s mutism. The film leads us to believe that Haleh’s heavy involvement in her son’s life may have led to his mutism, and as she detaches herself, Ilya may speak again. In an effort to provide the viewer with insight into the relationship between Haleh and Amir, the film focuses on the ordinary parts of their daily routine, which begin to serve as battlegrounds for the duo’s internal and external conflicts.
While the cast of “Like a Fish on the Moon” is purposefully and explicitly sparse, with only three significant characters, the film successfully dives deep into the feelings of Haleh and Amir without an overreliance on long dialogue. The vessel of the car is used to provide us with long and silent scenes as each parent contemplates Ilya’s continued mutism. Hajiha makes use of camera angles to juxtapose the different reactions of the two parents toward Ilya’s mutism. By placing Amir and Haleh next to each other in each scene, she is able to show Amir as being content with the approach described by the psychiatrist, namely Haleh’s need to detach herself from her son’s routine, as she becomes more desperate in her attempts to make her son talk again.
In a callback to the opening scenes of the film, the second act follows the relationship between Haleh and Amir as it deteriorates. Haleh’s despair comes through as the scenes cycle through doctor visits, taking the viewer into a speech and play therapist’s office. and a visually challenging scene of Ilya strapped down in a CT scanner. As Haleh’s desperation for her son to speak increases, so too does the pace of the film.
Haleh’s desperation spills into the cinematography as well, with Hajiha using more handheld camera angles as Ilya is driven around to various offices and appointments. Ilya’s isolation becomes more deliberate and clear, as the child is more rarely seen in the same shot as his parents.
In the movie’s final section, the feeling of urgency is stressed even more through the use of heavy and sudden orchestral music. Actions that might seem irrelevant to the plot, such as closing doors and flicking lights, are suddenly matched with intense orchestral music in a minor key, further immersing the viewer into Haleh’s distressed mindset.
Interestingly, in these final scenes, as the mother’s desperation reaches its peak, the film introduces Amir’s sudden animosity towards his mute son. At the climax of the film, as Haleh suffers a psychotic break and begins to walk into the ocean, Amir abandons his apparent contentment towards Ilya in prior scenes and begins to scold his son. Countering the typical patriarchal narrative, “Like a Fish on the Moon” ends with Amir bearing as much anger and desperation as Haleh, pushing back against the common trope of anger and sadness being thrown only onto the mother.
In an almost comedic ending, the film concludes with the most noise yet, as both mother and father reach their breaking point regarding Ilya’s silence. At this crucial juncture, the film makes use of dialogue, music and handheld camera angles to intensify on-screen sound, as the viewer is teased with Ilya seemingly preparing to speak. Yet, incredibly, Hajiha dramatically cuts this noise, as Ilya reverts to his usual silent self.
In a surprising direct contrast to the presented norm, the parent is shown to have learned from the child in this scene, as Ilya, Haleh and Amir all drive home from the beach in complete silence. Shockingly, the child has taught the parents to accept his mutism. In response to a viewer’s question following the screening, Hajiha noted that she wishes the ending had even more isolation and silence.
Is silence just the absence of noise? Hajiha seems to think so. “Most of our questions in life are unresolved. For some things, there is no solution,” she said in the Q&A session following the screening. The film leaves us with an unfinished ending, as the viewer is left to wonder at the fate of the family and how they will cope with silence not just externally, but internally, as well.