After the wild success of Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, which evolved from a graphic novel into an animated film, it was inevitable that Satrapi would cinematize the next of her published works. Chicken With Plums is a sprawling trip down a Persian rabbit hole -- a fantastical fable about love, death, families, fate (and fatalism), and trying to turn sour notes into musical lemonade.
As funneled through Satrapi's quirky sensibilities, Chicken With Plums is a funny, bittersweet tale with an Iranian subtext -- one of 2012's better films. It's also a big disappointment, a contradiction that will make sense to anyone who read the book that inspired the movie. Published in the United States in 2006, Satrapi's graphic novel centers around a musician named Nasser-Ali Khan, a character who's based on Satrapi's real-life great-uncle. The work opens in 1958 Tehran, with Khan walking by a woman named Irane with whom he was passionately in love two decades earlier, and still is. Irane loved him, too, but her father wouldn't countenance their relationship. Flashbacks ensue of Khan's life without Irane (highlighted by his loveless marriage and rapturous musicianship), and also flash-forwards of what happens years later.
First, here's why Chicken With Plums is so exasperating:
1. Very little of it is animated. What the hell? One reason the movie Persepolis was so transportive was its wide-eyed animation. It was Satrapi's graphic novel on cinematic steroids, a 96-minute, black-and-white dreamscape that, even in its quietest moments (the smoking of cigarettes, the dripping of faucet water) was pure visual poetry. The graphic novel Chicken With Plums employs the same black-and-white aesthetics. The movie Chicken With Plums has actors and actresses play out the roles, and Satrapi's distinctive animation only shows up in small transitions. The animated magic that worked before is now subsumed under a kaleidoscope of set effects that can be found in any average Hollywood film.
2. The movie Chicken With Plums is much less political and religious than the book. In the fourth page of the graphic novel, for instance, the characters talk about the 1958 U.S.-led coup that toppled Iran's democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. A footnote in the book explains the backstory of the deposing, including Mosaddegh's nationalization of Iran's oil production. In subsequent pages, characters mention: a historic religious leader, Imam Reza; Iran's 1936 ban that forbade women from wearing hijab and other religious scarves; Sufi mystics; and other figures who are paramount to Iran's cultural and religious traditions. In the movie, these figures are shunted aside for a much more secular approach that would appeal to general audiences.
3. The main musical instrument in the book, a Persian tar, disappears in the movie, replaced by a violin. The tar is uniquely Persian. Its sound is a source of pride for Iranians, and it's central to Nasser-Ali Khan's storyline in the graphic novel. In the movie, we do hear the tar in the background for a few moments, but Satrapi missed a great opportunity to really introduce the instrument to cinematic audiences. Her rationalization? Satrapi has said she "didn't want (the tar's) unusual look to be the focus of attention. It's not the instrument itself that's important in this story . . . The violin, which is very present in traditional Iranian music, is more universal, and its music more readily accessible." So, Satrapi, who co-directed the movie with Vincent Paronnaud (who also tag-teamed for the Persepolis movie), sacrificed authenticity for a potential increase in audience engagement. It's a tradeoff that seems uncalled for.
That said, here are two reasons that Chicken With Plums is worthy of attention:
1. Despite its sanitization from the graphic novel, the movie is a hugely entertaining window into Iran's past. Persepolis told the story of Satrapi's upbringing in 1970s Iran (when religious and political protests against the Shah eventually removed him from power) and her move to Europe as a teenager, where her rebelliousness and Iranian background were never far behind. Chicken With Plums turns the clock back another generation, to a time when Iran was Westernizing but still distinctly Iran. Nasser-Ali Khan buys violins in the currency called tomans in a city, Tehran, where the skyline, set against the Alborz mountains, brims with minarets. The violin store that Nasser-Ali Khan enters features traditional Iranian lutes. Khan's love interest, the woman who he longs for and who inspires his violin career, is named Irane, a not-so-subtle reference to Iran. Satrapi, who lives in France, has said the character represents "the dream of a bygone Iran, of a democracy that could have existed."
2. The movie is by Marjane Satrapi. Few other directors tell whimsical stories that are also poignant looks at the dark recesses of human behavior. Nasser-Ali Khan hates his wife, Faringuisse, and lets her know that she ruined his life. She also verbalizes her antipathy toward him. The level of animosity that's evident in the book is ratcheted up in the movie, even as we get lost in the farcical elements that turn Chicken With Plums into an enchanting escape into one man's decision to end his life. Just as she did in the book, Satrapi puts lots of obstacles in Nasser-Ali's way, including the Angel of Death, who engages Nasser-Ali in funny conversations about the meaning of life, and in Death's own tribulations.
Where Persepolis was a memoir, Chicken With Plums is an invented story that was inspired by real events. Satrapi has an active imagination. She talked to God in her previous film. In this one, her characters also converse with higher powers, but there's more mystery here about the characters' journeys. We go along for the ride, happy to be in Satrapi's company again, even if the ride seems vastly different from what we imagined it would be.
Chicken With Plums opens Friday, September 7 at San Francisco's Lumiere Theatre, then opens the following week at more Bay Area theatres. For tickets and more information, visit landmarktheatres.com.