Thursday, December 27, 2007

Catching Up

In preparing for my year-end wrap-up, I caught up with two fine films currently playing in New York theaters. Below are brief reviews of these two works.

A coming-of-age film given added interest by its tumultuous setting (Iran in the 1980s and early 1990s), its finely crafted animation (adapted by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi from the latter's graphic novel, the uncluttered, mostly black and white visual scheme overlays sharply drawn foreground figures onto undefined, airbrushed backdrops) and an effusive good humor, Persepolis is about as fine as this kind of thing can be. Detailing the early life of its protag (called Marjane and based on Satrapi's experiences) through the end of the Shah's reign and the brutal regime of the Ayatollah, as she shuffles between her native country and a stint in Vienna, the directors get down the brutality of life in a repressive, war torn country, the strong bond of family, the lure of forbidden Western pop-art (particularly heavy metal music) and the sense of alienation brought about by fitting imperfectly into two cultures. The film is full of wonderfully comic set-pieces as in Marjane's sing-along to "Eye of the Tiger" and suffused with a genuine tenderness that, like the stripped down, but expressive animation, provides the film with its affective foundation. Neither more nor less than a very good picture about growing up, Persepolis certainly doesn't transcend the genre (all its insights are confined within the usual dictates of the coming-of-age story), but it makes a strong case for its continued validity.

The second terrific "failure" of the season (following Richard Kelly's Southland Tales), Youth Without Youth's flaws may stem from its own ambition, but so do its singular achievements. Adapting a Mircea Eliade novella, director Francis Ford Coppola seems to want to cram the entirety of that writer's philosophy into his film's overstuffed framework. That this philosophy, dealing with the origins of language and the nature of religion, is continually fascinating doesn't ensure that the film's presentation of this material will be similarly engaging, but with Coppola's clear understanding of his sources and his indelible enthusiasm, it winds up being intellectually compelling in a way that few films can match. Heightened by a careful visual program (involving a muted indoor color scheme, a lush palette for the scenes in India, a series of canted angles and an adept manipulation of mirror images) and the sense of personal investment on the filmmaker's part, the picture makes up in sensory/intellectual stimulation what it lacks in coherence.

The film's central premise, which finds a suicidal professor (Tim Roth) granted a second youth, a chance to recapture his lost love and an opportunity to finish his life's work (documenting the origins of human speech and, thus, human consciousness), seems ideally suited for an exploration of Eliade's work. As Veronica (Alexandra Maria Lara), herself probably a reincarnation of the professor's youthful lover, becomes a medium for a 7th-century Indian woman, her speech regresses past Sanskrit and Sumerian and nears the very beginnings of language. For a second time in an extended life span, the professor is forced to make a choice between love and a higher calling, which Coppola posits as a sort of essential dichotomy, as if a man must renounce all worldly pleasures in order to achieve something beyond the commonplace. One can't take this as any kind of comment on the director's personal choices, but, with his latest offering (although it can't be considered an entire success - the film simply proposes so much more than it can properly assimilate), he has certainly ventured far outside the confines of the ordinary.

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