Persepolis: Life in Iran During the Islamic Revolution

The animated film Persepolis, directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, traces the life of a precocious and assertive young girl growing up in Tehran when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi's monarchy was overthrown in 1979, and Iran became an Islamic Republic. The film received a jury prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, prompting an Iranian official to claim that the film promoted "Islamophobia." And it is France's surprising entry for this year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

Based on Satrapi's life, which she first chronicled in her critically acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, the film presents a spunky Iranian heroine and features the voices of three French actresses: Chiarra Mastroianni as Marjane, Catherine Deneuve as her mother (and Mastroianni's mother in real life), and Danielle Darrieux as her grandmother (film insiders may recall that Darrieux played Deneuve's mother in The Young Girls of Rochefort). The film is subtitled in English, a wise decision as the animation was created only after the women's voices were recorded. Their performances are excellent.

The two-dimensional characters are hand-drawn in the same bold black-and-white style as Satrapi's book. The drawing on the page and animation cells is powerful. And the film adds wonderful backgrounds to scenes -- whimsically drawn buildings, stylized trees and flowers, and textures, patterns and subtle shades of grey -- making it delightful to watch.

The film's limited palette enhances the story. For example, the heavy black of the women's headscarves and clothing underscores the dress rules they were forced to obey by the government. Telling the story in color may have given the film an inappropriately garish or cheerful tone, which is not to say that the film is humorless.
In one funny scene, Marjane, wearing a headscarf, a jean jacket and Nike sneakers, strolls down a street where people sell black market goods so she can buy some of her favorite punk rock music. Men in dark coats mutter the names of the contraband tapes they are selling -- Iron Maiden ... Julio Iglesias ... Michael Jackson. It looks as though they are dealing drugs.

When the book was initially released in France, it was compared to Maus, Art Spiegelman's masterful graphic novel about his father's Holocaust experience. But Persepolis, the book and the film, lag behind Maus in emotional impact and storytelling. The film moves so quickly through different periods in Marjane's life that everything seems to be given the same weight. The directors don't linger on any of the poignant scenes, so their potential drama is diminished.

When the film jumps to her teen years in Austria, where Marjane's parents sent her to be educated in safety, the film shows her struggling with her identity, loneliness and even homelessness in Vienna. But because of the film's brisk pace, the scenes of her despair are not as moving as they are in the book.

Satrapi has described the film is a combination of German expressionism (apparent in its style) and Italian neorealism. But the film would have been better if the director been even more influenced by Italian neorealism.

For example, in Vittorio De Sica's Shoeshine, the two boys' betrayal of each other in post-World War II Italy results in heartbreaking tragedy. In Persepolis, when Marjane falsely accuses a man of insulting her to deflect attention away from the fact that she's wearing lipstick (which could get her in trouble with the guardians of the revolution) you never know what happens to the man. Did he go to jail? Was he punished?

As for Marjane, she thinks she was clever until her grandmother, a feminist with a strong moral center, condemns her for accusing an innocent person. Marjane expresses remorse but eventually feels redeemed after she speaks out at her art school against women's clothing restrictions. No further reference is made to the man.

Despite its flaws, Persepolis is worth seeing, if not for the striking animation, then for a personal look at one woman's life in Iran, a country that George Bush described in 2002 as being part of the "Axis of Evil" -- a label more suited to a comic book than real life.

Persepolis is now playing in theaters.


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