- - Thursday, September 13, 2012

Whimsy and despair intertwine unexpectedly in “Chicken With Plums,” an allegory about a man giving in to bitterness and turning his back on life.

Set in Tehran in 1958, “Chicken” tells the story of Nasser Ali Khan (Mathieu Amalric), a renowned concert violinist who, overwhelmed with disappointments, decides to take to his bed and wait for death.

The story unfolds in eight parts, keyed to the eight days it takes Nasser to die. This isn’t giving the plot away — the fact is announced by the narrator early on in the film. As later becomes obvious, the narrator isn’t some random voiceover — he’s is in a position to know. His identity, best kept secret here, casts the story in a whole new light when it is revealed late in the movie.

Nasser is afflicted by his fruitless search for a new violin, which he needs because his wife has destroyed the instrument bequeathed to him by his music teacher. He’s also tormented by a chance encounter with the woman he loved in his youth, but was forbidden to marry. Nasser’s disappointments find resonance in his playing; he is unable to achieve a satisfactory sound out of the violins he tests. When we see him bowing his old violin in flashback, it’s clear from the shimmering harmonics of his music (probably achieved with clever sound editing) why he’s so disappointed.

“Chicken With Plums” delves into Nasser’s past and leaps forward to sketch out the future lives of his children. The story moves from his unhappy marriage to his mousy and astringent wife Faringuisse (Maria de Medeiros), to his student days when he fell in love with the beautiful Irane (Golshifteh Farahani), to a torturous bus trip to the city of Rasht on a tip that there might be a Stradivarius on the market.

Mr. Amalric delivers a rich and varied performance as Nasser, imbuing him with all the passion, ego and insecurity of a great but misunderstood artist. He transforms Nasser from a stammering student falling in love to a melancholy performer to a despondent middle-age man who has lost faith in his gifts as an artist and his interest in his family.

Co-director Marjane Satriapi is best known for her graphic novel series “Persepolis,” which fictionalizes her life growing up in post-Revolutionary Iran and her life as an emigre in France. In the film adaptation of her book “Chicken With Plums,” she and Vincent Paronnaud craft an innovative visual framework that draws heavily on a comic book structure and layout. This is especially effective in flashbacks that use stationary cameras, shadowy lighting and exaggerated foreshortening to convey the idea of panels in a graphic novel.

The movie is in French, but its allegory is drawn straight from Iranian film. Nasser’s abusive wife, his smashed violin, his conviction that the gift of artistic expression is bought only with great pain, all speak to conditions in contemporary Iran in the indirect language used by Iranian directors. While “Chicken With Plums” lacks the necessary indirection and has too much erotic content to make it past Iranian censors, it honors the subversive poetry of the Iranian cinema.

Despite the tragic arc of the film, “Chicken With Plums” is full of unexpected and absurdly funny set pieces. While its allegory is rooted in the history of Iran, the movie still sounds a universal and timeless theme about the relationship of love, suffering and art.

★★★½

TITLE: “Chicken With Plums” (in French with English subtitles)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud

RATING: PG-13 for flashes of nudity, cursing, smoking and opium use.

RUNNING TIME: 93 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS