As a young girl growing up in Iran in the 1970s, Marjane Satrapi had two obsessions: shaving her legs one day, and being the last prophet of the galaxy. That amusing split between the Iranian girl’s earthly and heavenly interests found a grim parallel in the fate of her homeland.
In her graphic novels Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis: The Story of a Return, Satrapi depicted growing up in a privileged, progressive household in Tehran, where her family protested the Shah’s secular tyranny. Their joy at the revolution became dismay when a fundamentalist religious regime seized power and entered a decade-long war with Iraq.
Satrapi drew the Persepolis books in a simple, childlike style that would be at home in American newspaper comic strips and perfectly captures her younger self’s naive point of view. We see her early belief in God, her adolescent love of rock music, her ill-fated romances and especially the history of her country, all through the magnifying glass of her age. In Persepolis, the political really does unfold in personal terms.
Having lived in France since the 1990s, Satrapi teamed with Vincent Paronnaud to co-write and co-direct an animated version of Persepolis for the big screen. The moving, lyrical film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and is France’s official entry for contention in the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film. In Persepolis, the portrayal of clashing cultures finds fresh angles on coming-of-age clichés while celebrating the power of at least two art forms.
Persepolis takes its title from the ancient capital of the Persian Empire, and at a time when the U.S. and Iranian governments are rattling sabers at each other, the film provides some much-needed context. The ingenious first half even injects some welcome humor into a recap of recent Iranian history.
Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) comes across like a stepsister to one of those funny-bratty antiheroines of children’s literature like Eloise, only with a political bent. Marching around the living room, she bombastically calls for the Shah’s ouster while proclaiming her revolutionary credentials. Among her friends in similar progressive families, she even finds a status symbol in the fact that her beloved Uncle Anouche was a political prisoner for nine years: “Better than Laly’s father!”
When Anouche describes his arrest and flight to the Soviet Union, we see the events as a fairy tale in the prism of Marjane’s imagination. Her youthful romanticization runs aground against harsh realities when Anouche gets arrested again and chooses Marjane as his sole allowed visitor. Their heartbreaking reunion scene in his cell demonstrates how the animated film builds upon the graphic novel. Instead of black-and-white panels separated by white borders, the film’s deep, black backgrounds seem to blend in with the darkness of the movie theater. You feel immersed in the action rather than reading it at arm’s length.
Reminiscent of the clean, economical animation of Charlie Brown, Persepolis has an emblematic style that particularly suits the fundamentalist takeover. Rendering the Islamic authority figures as having identical beards provides a perfect symbol of oppressive conformity, while the shadowy, robed bodies of crone-like teachers have the sinister shapelessness of comic-book ghosts. Persepolis still finds room for sight gags, though; when Marjane goes through puberty (and is then voiced by Chiara Mastroianni), the physical changes take place instantly, in rubbery, exaggerated fashion.
As a tween, Marjane rebels quietly, wearing a punk rock T-shirt in public and buying disco and heavy metal tapes from black marketeers. She experiences the West firsthand in the film’s second half as she attends school in Vienna and hangs out with posing bourgeois anarchists. There’s a funny moment when she depicts a love affair as a dippy, cherubic fantasy, and then when it goes wrong, remembers only the pettiness and squabbling she ignored.
Persepolis proves less compelling in its second half, despite its frank portrait of a young woman’s depression exacerbated by guilt, homesickness and alienation. Moving from a theater of war and revolution, scenes that dramatize self-pity and bad boyfriends can’t have the same weight. The family scenes remain warm and touching throughout the film, however, with Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux providing the voices of Marjane’s mother and grandmother. (Chiara Mastroianni is the real-life daughter of Deneuve and Marcello Mastroianni.) The grandmother’s jasmine blossoms are a recurring image throughout the film, a sign of beauty and constancy amid the turbulence of history.
It boggles my mind that a French and Persian filmmaking team beat Americans to the punch with such a definitive adaptation of a graphic novel. American filmmakers have made some terrific movies of graphic novels, including American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini) and Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff), but they’ve all been live-action films. With our pioneering and cutting-edge comic-book and animation artists, America should own this genre (even compared with Japanese anime). Instead, Satrapi and Paronnaud wed the graphic novel to animation in Persepolis, and it’s the kind of blessed marriage through which both partners grow up.