So, two different versions of Tehran in two films in two months. The Tehran of Argo was a place of terror, of menace, of geo-politik paranoia, in which dissenters hung from construction cranes. Argo, made by a white American, communicates its fear of Iran, of the Other. It's a very different Tehran from what one finds in Chicken With Plums (2011, directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi). That Tehran is a place of magic and mystery. It's a place a modern Scheherazade might set one of her fanciful tales. The story, based on director Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel of the same name, has that feel to it. It even begins, the movie's narrator tells us, in the way all Persian stories begin. "There was a man, there was not a man." The Tehran of Chicken with Plums is a place of dreams, where mysterious shops lurk in out of the way corners and savants take on students and teach them the deep mysteries of their arts. It's obviously a place that Satrapi loves--she's actually been there, unlike Ben Affleck. Sure, Satrapi's Tehran is a place that probably never existed--surely not in the 1958 of the movie--but it's a place I like to believe exists somewhere. It's a place I'd love to visit.
The story here finds master violinist Nasser Ali in despair. His precious violin has been broken and no other violin, not even the Stradivarius he finds in a nearby town, sounds right to him. He's lost his muse. So he decides it's time to die. He contemplates various methods of doing the deed, but balks at all of them. Too messy or painful. Instead, he retreats to his bed and wastes away. Over the course of his last days, we see his relationship with his children (and what happens to them later in life), we see how he came to be married to his wife, how his violin was broken, how he became the musician he became, and (most importantly) how he lost his greatest love and how that loss unifies everything else in his life. The narrator relates this with a droll deadpan, and when we later learn that the narrator is Azrael, the angel of death, it's all of a piece with the movie.
This is a different kind of cinematic fairy tale than what we see from Hollywood. It's a story that ends in a sweet sadness, one that the film comes by honestly. It's never dreary, though. This is one of the most visually inventive films in recent memory, one that combines animation and clever special effects to create a film that never looks mundane even when it's documenting things that would ordinarily seem mundane. This might seem a tad precious if it weren't for the streak of cynicism running through the whole along side the sweet/sadness. The best joke in the film involves a child asking for opium, after all, and there's a wicked send-up of American sitcoms buried somewhere in the center of the story. My favorite shot is a sly homage to the great French cartoonist, Moebius, in which consists solely of a bus rounding a turn on a mountain road. Satrapi knows where her roots lie. It's hard for me to put my finger on this film's visual idiom, though. It's part film noir, part storybook otherwhere. It's a thoroughly designed film.
As a narrative, this film is darkly fabulous (as in, resembling some kind of dark fable). There's an animated story buried in the middle of the film, in which Azrael tells of meeting a man he is to shepherd into the next life the day before his death that re-tells "The Appointment in Samarra," which gives a clue as to the themes of fate and death and loss that run through the film, but also its intent as a fable. This is not a naturalistic film in the least, but that's okay by me. Naturalism can only see the surface. This goes deeper, I think.
The filmmakers are fortunate in their collaborators, too. Matthieu Amalric communicates volumes with just his eyes. He looks a bit like a cartoon character in this movie, which is all to the good. I mean that in the best possible way: he's expressive with just a gesture, with just a posture. This is perfect for Nasser Ali. Maria de Medeiros plays his put-upon wife, and she has something of the same qualities. It's in her eyes. The rest of the cast similarly inhabit their roles, and then the movie throws Isabella Rossellini into the mix and I kind of squealed in delight. The film's visual panache aside, this is populated by interesting faces. This plays to the movie's themes, in which emotions must be concealed, until those same emotions destroy everyone. The ending of Chicken with Plums is deeply sad, utterly inevitable, just about perfect, and written all over the face of Golshifteh Farahani.