Persepolis hit Charleston, South Carolina, this week, and my review is supposed to appear in the Charleston City Paper today.
By Andrea Warner
Scholars, politicians, and religious leaders have spent decades disassembling and examining Iran’s metamorphosis from royal tyranny in the 1970s to the current fundamentalist rule. But in order to understand the years of fighting that have displaced and killed hundreds of thousands of Iranians, what the rest of us needed was a face to connect with, inviting us inside her family’s experiences as their lives were turned inside out. And apparently we needed her in the form of a comic-book heroine.
Based on the autobiographical graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis is a uniquely wonderful animated film that tackles the tumultuous time of the Islamic Revolution in Iran through the eyes and memories of Marjane’s precocious six-year-old self, then follows her from war-torn Iran, to her teenage years in a Viennese boarding school and to her return home after a devastating deviation from her true path as she faces adulthood.
The film is at its most compelling during the time leading up to and just after the Islamic Revolution. The Satrapi family is full of dynamic and rebellious characters that connect immediately with the audience: they are the people we wish were related to. At the age of six, Marjane believes she is a prophet, taking a private audience with God when she needs counsel. She is wide-eyed with fascination at the stories her Uncle Anouche shares about his years in the Shah’s prison, and it’s easy to see her head and heart latching on to the concept of justice and democracy. It’s an exciting thing to witness when you reside in North America where voting and basic freedoms are easily taken for granted.
Marjane’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. Satrapi are intelligent free thinkers and political activists who protest the Shah’s rule, and have lost many friends and family members to the fight against him. Marjane’s grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), is a ballsy and brazen woman who encourages her granddaughter’s outspoken criticism of the ruling regime. This character offers a striking and welcome contrast to the typical Western view of Middle Eastern women. She is a first-wave feminist, and an amazing and inspiring role model for any young woman. Marjane’s mother, voiced by Catherine Deneuve, is progressive and liberal, desperate for her daughter to make more of her life outside of Iran. Chiara Mastroianni, Deveuve’s daughter, voices teen/adult Marjane, which may account for the intense emotion in scenes between the pair.
When the Shah is overthrown, the Satrapi family celebrates along with the rest of Iran, but the exultation is short-lived. Islamic fundamentalists surge into power and quickly swing the pendulum back from the Western and more modern influences introduced by the Shah. Suddenly, basic freedoms (and indulgences) Iranians had taken for granted are gone: punk music and lipstick reside alongside alcohol as contraband. Then Iraq attacks Iran, bringing years of air raids, bombing and increasing fundamentalism, forcing the Satrapi family to send Marjane to Vienna.
The story loses a bit of its intimacy during its time in Vienna. Marjane is isolated from her family and takes up with a group of anarchists and is bumped from home to home as she tries to figure out who she is outside of her Iranian heritage. Her experiences with racism, drugs, love, and the accompanying broken hearts feel as rushed this sentence. Her subsequent depression and homelessness are particular elements that raise more questions than they answer. The animation throughout this portion of the story is what keeps the audience so entrenched in the film. That and seeing Marjane tell off a variety of idiotic people who push her to explode.
When she returns to Iran, Marjane is a stranger in her homeland, avoiding friends and family when she can, and finally sees a shrink who prescribes her anti-depressants for her condition. The pills aggravate her depression and the film glosses over her suicide attempt with no more than a euphemistic dream sequence where she floats over a beautiful sea and reconciles with God, who reminds her of her purpose. But, at least this leads to an awesome and tuneless sing-along/dance number set to Eye of the Tiger as Marjane reclaims her drive. It also pushes her into a series of circumstances where she must finally decide if the Iran of today is really her home.
The artwork and animation are things of beauty. The majority is in black and white, with wonderfully textured and vibrant grays that create a cornucopia of haunting and mesmerizing visuals. The backgrounds seem to shimmer with breath, their vitality bursting from the screen during the films louder moments. When the story calls for quietly devastating contemplation, the animation complies, and the winsome and twisted trees are enough to stir tears from even the hardest heart. The animation is incredible, and infuses the artwork with a surreal and magical quality that lightens some of the difficult subject matter without lessening the impact.
Equal parts history lesson, rebel rousing, coming-of-age story, and artistic endeavor, Persepolis is a powerful, stimulating and contemplative film. Long live the comic book.