Movie Review: Chicken With Plums
We learn 16 minutes and two seconds into “Chicken With Plums” that Nasser-Ali Khan was followed to the grave by those who loved him. So the drama in “Chicken With Plums” comes not from seeing whether he’ll commit suicide, but in deciding whether his choice made sense. Along the way, you may find yourself analyzing some decisions of your own.
The film comes from writer-directors Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Parronnaud, whose “Persepolis” was nominated for an animated film Oscar in 2007. That one was shot in black and white and presented as images from a graphic novel, which is how it began. Yet it’s more realistic than “Chicken,” which comes at us like a tale narrated from “The 1001 Arabian Nights.”
French actor Mathieu Amalric plays renowned Nasser-Ali, whose beloved violin gets broken in the Iran of 1958. He despairs of finding another and finally finds no reason to live. He retires to his bed, refuses food, and waits for the Angel of Death. During his last week, he ponders the failures and follies of his life.
The filmmakers consistently take us away from the literal world. All but one of the Persian characters are played by people who are not Persian: Nasser’s wife (Maria de Medeiros of Portugal), his brother (Eric Caravaca of Spain), his grown daughter (Chiara Mastroianni of France), his mother (Isabella Rossellini of Italy). Jamel Debbouze, French-born to Moroccan parents, is the only one who looks Middle Eastern, and he plays a Chinese shopkeeper and a prophet who would fit into “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”
The filmmakers take side trips (a la “Amelie”) to show us characters’ pasts and futures. They break into animation, fantasy sequences, even special effects for the cheerful Angel of Death (Eduoard Baer). When young Nasser-Ali – played by Amalric with virtually no difference in makeup – encounters a musical guru, you can bet the wise man will wear a flowing robe and a long, gray beard.
Only one part of the story gets told simply and straightforwardly: The flashback where Nasser-Ali falls in love with Irâne, a merchant’s daughter, and is rejected by her father as a penniless suitor. Her name is pronounced “Ir-AN,” like the country of Satrapi’s birth, and you may draw what conclusions you will. (Golshifteh Farahani, who plays her, is the lone Iranian in a significant role.)
Does Irâne represent the heart of a nation broken by greed and shortsightedness? Persian women who’ve had lives ruined by controlling men? Or just the traditional powerless heroine of a fable, buffeted by a cruel fate?
Satrapi and Parronnaud give us clues but no solution. The fun, for those of us who like fairy tales, is in guessing.