Love and death in prerevolutionary Iran

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Entertainment,Movies,Kelly Jane Torrance

All eyes were on "Persepolis" in 2007. With Iran in the news, there was a thirst to understand the Islamic republic, and the animated adaptation of the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, who grew up in the country but now lives in France, looked to fit the bill.

Co-written and co-directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, "Persepolis" proved a bit of a disappointment, however. The increased freedom that the animated form might have given the collaborators seemed wasted in this movie that was ostensibly about successive regimes that wanted to rule men's souls, but didn't seem to have a soul itself.

Satrapi and Paronnaud have now turned another of her graphic novels into a film, this time in live action. But it feels even more two-dimensional than its predecessor.

On screen
'Chicken with Plums'
2 out of 4 stars
Stars: Mathieu Amalric, Edouard Baer, Maria de Medeiros
Directors: Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi
Rated: PG-13 for some drug content, violent images, sensuality and smoking
Running time: 93 minutes

"Chicken with Plums" follows the last week of Nasser-Ali Khan's life -- and everything that led up to it. Khan (played by Frenchman Mathieu Amalric) has given up on life in late 1958 in Tehran. He takes to his bed, ready to die.

What caused such fatal resignation? As the movie begins, Khan runs into a woman and is clearly affected by the experience. But she doesn't remember him, she says: "To tell the truth, not at all." He walks on to pick up a violin he's left to be repaired. But when he tries to play it, the sound is still off. Angrily calling the owner a crook, he refuses a violin worth far more in return. And so he goes home to die.

It turns out the woman and the violin are intimately intertwined. Without the loss of the woman, he would never have become the virtuoso on the violin. "Chicken with Plums" is thus a story of an ending of a life, but also a previous ending that led to a beautiful beginning -- though it seems clear that Khan would never have given one for the other, had he been allowed to make the choice.

Amalric is best known here for another virtuoso performance, in 2007's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." There, he expressed his character's anguish and despair -- the same kind that makes a man give up on life -- entirely through an eye, as a man otherwise completely paralyzed. Here, strangely enough, it's his eyes that make it difficult to take his character seriously. His eyes are constantly opened wide, lending an air of farce even to the serious proceedings.

Iranian film has seen something of a renaissance the last few years, from filmmakers working both within and without the country. Satrapi is one of the best-known expatriates, thanks to her graphic novels. But she's given us the least insight into a country that remains in the headlines, and will likely continue to do so.

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Kelly Jane Torrance

Washington Examiner Movie Critic
The Washington Examiner