Persepolis (Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi, 2007): France/USA

Reviewed by Richard Feilden. Viewed at the Santa Barbara Human Rights Film Festival.

Persepolis, the animated tale of an Iranian girl’s political and sexual awakening during the Islamic Revolution, is a unique, captivating film. Adapted from the graphic novels that told her life story by Marjane Satrapi in partnership with co-writer/director Vincent Paronnaud, it mixes comedy and real-life horror in just the right proportions.

Persepolis opens with Marjane (Gabrielle Lopes and Chiara Mastroianni) as a young woman, scanning an airport departure list for a flight to Tehran as she ties on an Islamic headscarf, slumped shoulders indicating the defeat that the act embodies. Slipping back in time, we are treated to an introduction to her nine year old incarnation through black and white artwork that brings the graphic novel to life. Believing that she is destined to become a prophet, the young Marjane supports the Shah, declaring him to have been chosen by . Her parents explain the lie of this to their Bruce Lee obsessed daughter, telling the tale of the England’s role in the establishment of the repressive Qajar dynasty and their overthrow by the equally controlling Shah. This paradigm shift for the young girl comes as her parents are involved in the riots leading to the Iranian Revolution. Hopes are high as Marjane’s uncle, a political prisoner, is released and in an uncharacteristically heavy handed moment a giant statue of a former dictator is felled by the crowds. But joy turns to resentment and fear as religious fundamentalism replaces the previous dictatorship. With Marjane’s rebellious nature and tendency to speak her mind threatening to bring the weight of the religious police down upon her, her parents send the fourteen year old girl to Austria in the hopes of protecting their child.

The animated style of Persepolis not only matches the books perfectly, but as others have noted, allows the film to show things in juxtaposition that would not be possible within a live action film. The moments of humor are so many that the change in gear required to show Marjane’s neighbour’s bodies lying in the rubble of their bombed house or the scores of political prisoners being slaughtered for refusing to renounce their beliefs would have been impossible. Imagine Schindler’s List punctuated with Marx Brothers slapstick if you can’t grasp just how odd this would seem. By taking away the ‘reality’ of the situation the film is able to deal with subjects that would have simply turned viewers away.
The film’s greatest moments however are not those which deal with great events, but those in which Marjane’s relationships with her family, particularly with her Grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), are explored. The widow of a political martyr, she nurtures the spirit of the young Marjane and berates her when she fails to meet her own ideals and provides the ideological cornerstone of the movie. This beautifully explored bond is the highlight of the film.

This film will not satisfy an audience looking for a neatly tied package of wrongs righted and stories completed. This is a cartoon in appearance only. Its simplicity is skin deep, but a wealth of complexity lies beneath the surface.

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