At New York Film Festival: Upheaval in
Iran, Fiasco in Westchester
|Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud/Sony Pictures Classics
|Marjane, second from right, with friends in Vienna in "Persepolis."
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: October 12, 2007
Aesthetics versus storytelling: as much as anything,
that is the issue that defines the 45th New York Film
Festival, which winds to a close on Sunday. On the
rare occasions when serious aesthetic exploration
and an entertaining yarn fuse, as in “Persepolis,”
the animated closing-night film, everyone should be
During a recent screening of “Persepolis,” the French film based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel about growing up in contemporary Iran, a
facetious quote from David Mamet’s play “American Buffalo” floated into my mind and lodged there: “The only way to teach these people is to
kill them.” In the three decades since that play was first produced, those words have come to describe the whiplash effects of political turmoil
that is epidemic, especially in the Middle East.
The movie is a semi-autobiographical first-hand account of Iran’s troubled history from the days of the shah through the Islamist revolution
and the Iran-Iraq war. Its narrator, also named Marjane, is a spirited young rebel from a closely knit, middle-class family, struggling to define
her identity (at one point she is a punk listening to smuggled Iron Maiden tapes) in a repressive climate whose shifting political winds require
wrenching personal adjustments. For a time, she lives as an expatriate student in Vienna.
As one regime supplants another and war rages, many thousands die. Her family’s hopes for political and social equilibrium are dashed as
retribution is meted out, and enemies, real and imagined, are purged. Marjane eventually leaves Iran to settle in Paris.
For all the pessimism nipping at the movie’s edges, the chaos and inhumanity surrounding Marjane are held at bay by familial love,
especially the devotion of her wise, hard-headed grandmother, who has seen it all. Chiara Mastroianni is the voice of Marjane as a young
adult, and the great French star Danielle Darrieux is the grandmother.
Because it is animated, “Persepolis” is a bold choice for the festival’s closing-night selection. “A cartoon?” you may sniff. “How dare they?” But
the movie is so enthralling that it eroded my longstanding resistance to animation, and I realized that the same history translated into a live-
action drama could never be depicted with the clarity and narrative drive that bold, simple animation encourages.
“Persepolis” makes you contemplate the processes of history. Buried under each wave of “reform,” it suggests, are cultural traditions that will
eventually resurface no matter how repressive the climate of the moment. The movie is also tacitly feminist in its depiction of Islamist
patriarchs as ludicrous misogynist prudes.
“Persepolis” has a lot in common with last year’s closing-night film, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” which portrays life in the wake of the Spanish Civil War
through the eyes of girl who transmutes fear into ritualized fairy-tale fantasy. Both films are immeasurably enriched by examining war and
social upheaval through innocent female eyes.
A film that could be taken as a documentary corollary to “Persepolis,” “Calle Santa Fe,” Carmen Castillo’s heart-rending 163-minute memoir
of her return to Chile after decades in exile, has a single screening on Sunday afternoon. Ms. Castillo, an opponent of the Pinochet
dictatorship, was forcibly deported a month after the October 1974 siege of the house she shared with Miguel Enríquez, the leader of the
Movement of the Revolutionary Left, who was killed.
The extremely emotional film follows Ms. Castillo’s return to the house in a Santiago suburb; its address gives the movie its title. After
interviewing neighbors and colleagues who recall the atrocities of the dictatorship, she berates herself for not coming back many years
earlier when the remaining movement members urged political exiles to return and continue their struggle.
Its temperamental opposite, Jia Zhangke’s documentary “Useless,” is an exploration of the clothing business in China. The narration-free
film begins with scenes of workers toiling in a Chinese garment factory, then narrows its focus to Ma Ke, an haute-couture designer shown in
her Shanghai boutique, and follows her to the chic unveiling of her new handmade line in Paris. Without editorializing, the film invites
contemplation of the meaning and value of clothing in the era of globalization.
The marquee-name films in the final days of the festival belong to two resilient old masters, Sidney Lumet, now 83, and Claude Chabrol, 77,
both in better-than-average form. In “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead,” Mr. Lumet’s 45th film, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke
play rivalrous brothers whose bungled robbery of their parents’ modest jewelry store in Westchester County begins a cycle of quasi-Greek
family tragedy without a catharsis.
Mr. Hoffman’s portrayal of a thieving payroll manager at a real estate company who bullies his kid brother and grovels for the approval of his
withholding father (Albert Finney in an overwrought performance) is evidence of what Mr. Lumet can still pull out of a great actor. Especially in
the scenes between the brothers, the melodrama, written by Kelly Masterson, suggests a downscale suburban echo of Mr. Lumet’s 1962 film
version of “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Mr. Chabrol’s film, “A Girl Cut in Two,” loosely inspired by the 1906 murder of the New York architect Stanford White, is grander in scale than
his recent mysteries, but shares their sardonic view of class divisions, sexual gamesmanship and crushing social machinery. Its putative
heroine, Gabrielle (Ludivine Sagnier), is a television weather girl, who finds herself the object of a power struggle between two ruthless
narcissists: Charles (François Berléand), a successful author, incorrigible womanizer, and much older married man, and Paul, a spoiled
multimillionaire playboy (portrayed as a flouncing caricature by Benoît Magimel), who wants her as a trophy.
If both films by these respected veterans, are qualified successes, “Persepolis” is an unqualified triumph. It rings out a film festival that began
much less auspiciously with Wes Anderson’s “Darjeeling Limited.” Touted as an example of the so-called New York wave, Mr. Anderson’s
film struck me as a twee, middlebrow Three Stooges movie with an elegant design. As it followed the whimsical antics of three brothers
traveling through India, it brings to mind a Bing Crosby-Bob Hope “Road” movie in its benighted view of another culture: a “Road” movie, I
should add, without funny jokes.
“Margot at the Wedding,” by that other Young Turk, Noah Baumbach, is a sharply disappointing follow-up to “The Squid and the Whale.”
Visually muddy and at times impenetrable, the movie skirts nervously around an issue raised by his previous semi-autobiographical movie:
What is the morality of an artist’s airing dirty family laundry? As these petty, self-absorbed characters cannibalize one another, your impulse is
to flee a poisonous banquet that not even actors like Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Jason Leigh can make appetizing.
Laugh-out-loud humor is a scarce commodity at any film festival, but there are yucks galore in “Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project,” John
Landis’s documentary portrait of the beloved insult comic. Mr. Rickles, at 81, still exhibits the ferocity of a mad bull, although beneath his
belligerence is a sentimental family man. The lesson here is that if you insult everybody, you insult no one, and anyway, it’s all impersonal
shtick. Hard-boiled only begins to describe the old-time, gangster-run nightclub world remembered by Mr. Rickles and many famous talking
heads. And in that world to kill meant to kill with laughter.