Review: fantastical elements worth savoring in 'Chicken With Plums'

Teheran, 1958. Since his beloved violin was broken, Nasser Ali Khan, one of the most renowned musicians of his day, has lost all taste for ...

Rating: PG-13 for some drug content, violent images, sensuality and smoking

Length: 90 minutes

Released: August 17, 2012 NY/LA

Cast: Isabella Rossellini, Golshifteh Farahani, Maria de Medeiros, Mathieu Amalric, Jamel Debbouze

Director: Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi

Writer: Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi

More info and showtimes »

Stick with what you know. So far, that's worked out pretty well for Iranian graphic novelist-turned-filmmaker Marjane Satrapi.

Based in Paris, the 42-year-old took the comic-book world by storm a decade ago with "Persepolis," a coming-of-age tale set during the Iranian Revolution. She is a master of economy, generating raw emotion with stripped-down, almost child-like drawings. Her 2007 film adaptation, which she co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud, didn't stray far. Rendered in crisp black-and-white animation, her reward was the Jury Prize at Cannes and an Oscar nomination.

For her second film, Satrapi again mines her own material, the graphic novel "Chicken With Plums." But the translation to live action comes with grander ambitions.

For the most part it's a savory treat, much like the titular dish. The tone is along the lines of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "Amelie," but with nary a character as likeable as Audrey Tautou's matchmaking nymph.

Maybe that's the point. At its core, "Chicken With Plums" is the story of a lovesick musician whose only cure is death. Don't worry, it's not as glum as it sounds.

In 1958, Nasser-Ali is the best violinist in Tehran. After a fight with his wife, she snaps his beloved instrument. The loss of the violin sends him sliding down a depressing path, and he dies from a broken heart.

But there's plenty of movie left. Satrapi sends us back through Nasser-Ali's life, revealing the source of his despair: a love affair he was forced to give up long before this broken marriage.

As we hopscotch through his past, the fantastical is around every corner. Animated sequences burst onto the screen. Azrael, the angel of death, appears with horns and black face paint, showing Nasser-Ali the fate of his children as they tumble into adulthood.

All of this is handled with comic flair. While the setting is Iran, this is a French-language film. So when Azrael first greets our protagonist, he says "Bonjour, Nasser-Ali." It almost sounds delightful.

Satrapi has Westernized other parts of the graphic novel, including Nasser-Ali's violin, which was originally a tar, a long-necked Persian string instrument.

Playing Nasser-Ali is the Frenchman Mathieu Amalric, a gritty actor best known as the lead in Julian Schnabel's "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly." The strong cast also includes Isabella Rossellini as Nasser-Ali's overbearing mother.

The story doesn't end well for our sad violinist. Still, the film's emotional conclusion actually improves upon the graphic novel.

If you're already a fan, it'll make you wonder: What's next for Satrapi? Back to comics? More movies?

She's good at both, and she knows it.

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