Voices of Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux
Directed by Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Parannaud
Persepolis should be a Hollywood marketing drone's worst nightmare.
It's the autobiography of uncompromising Iranian writer Marjane Satrapi; it contains too many mature themes for typical pre-teen animation audiences. Its simple art and comic-book origins may put off the older set, too. But it's an easier sell than you might think: It transcends its medium and tells an engaging story of universal truths in a fast-moving, amiable way.
The story centers on Satrapi's family life as she grows up in Tehran in the 1970s and '80s. After the tyrannical Shah is deposed, the people rejoice and gleeful kids play torture games in the street. In this climate of optimism, the fine line between church and state narrows and Islamic dogma steadily restricts the freedoms of its citizens. Tehran becomes a cheerless place that only a Charleston County deputy could love. It's forbidden to play cards, drink alcohol, hold hands with your boyfriend in public, or generally misbehave.
If Amy Hutto lived in Tehran, she'd be public enemy No. 1.
Some of Satrapi's neighbors and relatives are imprisoned or executed for their communist sympathies. As if that doesn't make life hard enough for the outspoken Satrapi and her liberal parents, the city also has the crap bombed out of it during an eight-year war with Iraq. The Iranian government uses the resulting climate of fear to further impinge the civil liberties of its people while they try to continue their lives as normal. As Satrapi's uninhibited grandma (Danielle Darrieux) puts it, "fear lulls us to sleep. It makes us cowards as well."
Somehow Satrapi maintains her freedom of spirit, challenging the Islamic Guardians who ensure that women keep their heads covered with chadors and their faces unsullied by makeup. She headbangs to Iron Maiden, attends parties, and continues to speak her mind until it's not safe any more.
Her parents ship her off to Austria where she discovers sex, drugs, and destitution. Europe has all the freedoms that Iran lacks, but people take it for granted and Satrapi doesn't find the integrity and solidarity she's used to back home. "In the West," she says, "you can die in the street and nobody cares."
Back home she gets married and learns the value of maintaining her identity and integrity. That serves her well when she moves to France, ready to start a new life as an artist. The animation in this film is Simpsons-simple and stays true to Satrapi's original comic books (she finds the term "graphic novels" pretentious). The characters have no detailed expressions, just a bump for a nose, a line for a mouth, and pupils like little black beans bouncing around their saucepan eyes.
It's amazing how much story and emotion is conveyed with such a direct approach. The most effective scenes use silhouettes to show epic events in Iran's history — riots, battles, executions. We watch the countryside turn from verdant landscape to blasted heath. Satrapi describes walking in Tehran as being "like walking in a cemetery."
The political asides and mini-history lessons never get in the way of Satrapi's life story, and the film takes a singularly candid look at a girl's coming of age — her fantasies, her confusion as she tries to find an identity for herself, and the physical changes she undergoes.
In a clever scene, puberty hits her all at once as she undergoes an awkward transformation from girl to young woman. In moments like this, Satrapi's self-effacing humor is enhanced by filmmaker Vincent Parannaud's gift for slapstick and visual comedy, which helps to keep the movie from grinding to a navel-gazing halt.
With Hollywood shying away from a serious examination of the injustices of Islamic fundamentalism, Persepolis is a small, unassuming piece of entertainment with some big statements to make about not just gaining your freedom but what to do with it once it's won.