My So-Called Middle Eastern Life

Persepolis is a vibrant black-and-white cartoon memoir of growing up in Iran.

| February 14, 2008

This old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism, and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half of my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth.

— Marjane Satrapi, from the introduction to Persepolis

And lo, in the dreary moviegoing days of February, a little child shall lead us out of the darkness and into the light. Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's vibrant, funny animated-film adaptation of Satrapi's graphic novels, is an autobiographical coming-of-age story rooted in a part of the world most Americans don't know anything about.

Satrapi (as voiced in the film by Gabrielle Lopes and Chiara Mastroianni) was born in 1969 and grew up in Tehran during the final decade of the shah's rule. Her mom (Catherine Deneuve), dad (Simon Abkarian), and grandmother (a hugely enjoyable Danielle Darrieux) all have (or had) friends and relatives who resisted the shah's tyranny; some lived to tell about their torture and imprisonment. Amid such tense times, it becomes clear that Satrapi has inherited both her parents' independence and her grandmother's impudent sense of humor, which does not make her life any easier as the Islamic revolution, with its veils and censorship, begins in earnest.

Too smart and stubborn to do anything but shrug at official government statements and bone-headed teachers who have swallowed the party line, Satrapi drifts from Iran to Austria and back again as she tries to find her place in the world. Yet no matter where she goes, Satrapi faces the same problems: boys, sex, identity, conformity. Early on, junky Western pop culture seems to provide a remedy from social and political alienation. But (thankfully) Satrapi isn't arguing that Iron Maiden, Michael Jackson, and punk rock saved her life; she simply is pointing out that the everyday acts of teenage rebellion take on extra meaning and danger in a repressive society. And while the disruptions of the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq war loom over everything and touch everyone, the film creates a real sense of politics and world affairs as most people experience them — something important that is often pushed to the background, even when the bombs are dropping from the sky.

In spite of its dark moments, the film's story is surprisingly jaunty. And the film's visual style carries it far beyond its comic-book roots. In their level of detail and their commitment to the particularities of urban architecture and landscape, Persepolis' black-and-white compositions are vivid, evocative improvements over Satrapi's original pen-and-ink drawings. The range of shades and tones within any given scene create Expressionist pictorial effects reminiscent of the finest, most outrageously shot and staged film noirs of the 1940s and '50s. In fact, I found the film's animated universe superior to the densely packed near-real landscapes of Pixar's Ratatouille.

Unlike too much of Ratatouille, though, Persepolis offers a bold interpretation of a world and a time period rather than a faithful recreation of it. The film moves to the rhythm of Satrapi's memory (the film's black-and-white flashbacks are framed by color sequences at the Orly airport), and since no memory is impervious to embellishment, there is plenty of space for imagination and fantasy. The quick, gliding zoom-out on a precisely centered image is frequently used to create powerful, lingering images: Satrapi's horrified face as she sees past some bomb debris; a rebellious relative standing before a noose; her father carrying his wife away from an airport departure gate as a frightened Satrapi looks on behind protective glass. Other visual epiphanies are equally potent and resonant, and some of these moments are even more frightening than the drifting snapshots. The first appearance of the shah's troops — black silhouettes whose white gas-mask goggles stick out as they mow protesters down — is especially ominous. The last days of the Iran-Iraq war are shown through the staging of puppet armies who shoot at each other point-blank before falling into bottomless trenches.

Perseplois: far beyond its comic-book roots
  • Perseplois: far beyond its comic-book roots
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The meticulous, lively animated backgrounds are in contrast to the stark minimalism of the film's human figures. By choosing to make all the characters' features fairly plain, Satrapi embraces and exploits the powers of the simplified cartoon icon. As Scott McCloud explained in his seminal book Understanding Comics, when you look at a detailed illustration of a face, you see that face. But if you look at an abstract, two-dots-and-a-line image of a face, you see yourself. Satrapi may look like a Peanuts character in a veil, but her easy-to-recognize face forces the viewer not only to observe her character but, for long stretches, to become it.

This identification is as important for the comic sequences as it is in the serious ones. In one sequence, Satrapi describes her pubescent growth spurts as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde transformation — first her jaw grows long and huge like a pelican's, then her one eye bulges out, then her breasts explode, and then her pneumatic butt restores her balance. This ordeal is too precious in Satrapi's book because the suddenness of the transformation can't be conveyed. But the movie's wickedly funny cataloguing of these changes provides some big laughs while evoking the bizarre distensions of the early Ren and Stimpy cartoons.

It's strange, then, that such an action-packed film has pacing problems. At some points, Persepolis feels truncated and almost tossed-off. The film's quick fade-ins, fade-outs, and dissolves are appropriate for the snappy comic encounters and quick sketches of historical information, but this steady power-walk toward the end short-circuits too many chances for more subtle, satisfying emotional moments. When Satrapi awakens after a depression-induced suicide attempt, she gets her life in order by dancing to "Eye of the Tiger." Such a silly conceit becomes an ecstatic instant in the film. Yet it never blooms into a memorable scene; it is cut short just before it reaches a giggly, enthusiastic peak.

Nevertheless, Persepolis offers more joy, comedy, and sheer filmmaking beauty than any other recent releases right now. It is a film worth embracing.

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