In Tehran, A Vivid Parable About The Ends Of Things

Written on August 30, 2012 by Banafsheh Farhangmehr in Arts & Cultures & Societies

A parable of art and love, and a political allegory to boot, Chicken with Plums centers on an Iranian musician who wills himself to die. Yet the story that then unfolds, mostly in flashback, could hardly be more vital and engaging.

The movie was adapted by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud from the former’s graphic novel. The same team brought Satrapi’s earlier book, the autobiographical Persepolis, to the screen with animated renderings of Satrapi’s drawings. For this tale, which is based on a Satrapi family legend yet has wider implications, the duo largely forgoes the graphic approach in favor of live action.

The narrative, which nests stories within stories, does incorporate a few hand-drawn or CGI-generated episodes. And the other scenes, filmed on sets at Germany’s Studio Babelsberg, are far from naturalistic. In appearance, the movie recalls Amelie or Hugo, but with a shadowy, sepia-toned palette. Its storytelling style is playful and self-conscious, with magically unrealist touches.

A former concert violinist, protagonist Nasser Ali chooses to perish early in the movie, which then circles back to explain his despair. Not even the title dish, his favorite meal, can lure him from his self-made appointment with the angel of death. In fact, the story is narrated by that very figure: horned and black-shrouded Azrael (Edward Baer).

The inspiration for Nasser Ali’s death wish is twofold, although that’s not immediately obvious. At first, it seems that the only cause of his anguish is the loss of a long-beloved violin, which was recently broken.

Even a Stradivarius, acquired after an arduous journey that includes an opium trip, fails to satisfy Nasser Ali. Without his original instrument, it seems, the musician can never again perform to his own expectations. So he resolves to waste away.

As Nasser Ali waits a week for oblivion, flashbacks and asides deepen our understanding of the man, embodied by Mathieu Amalric with his usual flair for playing neurotics who are roughly as likable as they are irritating.

Nasser Ali’s struggle to become a great violinist, we’ll come to understand, has been painful, and his international success as a musician short-lived. Returning to Tehran, he’s forced by his chain-smoking, charmingly overbearing mother (Isabella Rossellini) to marry Faranguiss (Maria de Medeiros), a math teacher who has long adored him. He doesn’t love her, and subsequently doesn’t much care for the two children they produce. (The movie has it in for the kids as well, lampooning them in flash-forwards to their adult lives.)

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