Sunday afternoon the 10th we braved the sub-zero temperatures to go out to the Downer Theatre to see "Persepolis," the animated film adaptation of the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. Satrapi also directed and wrote the screenplay along with Vincent Paronnaud, which gives the filem excellent unity of style and vision.
The story begins with the adult Marjane getting off a plane to the West at Orly Airport in Paris. This is the only time/place that is in full color. The rest of the film is a sequence of flashbacks done in elegant black and white with rare accents. The earliest memory we see is of young Marjane's home in Teheran, Iran prior to the over throw of the Shah. Marjane loves rock music and Bruce Lee, and her ambitions in life are to become a Martial Artist and a Prophet. (God talks to her, as we see in a couple of scenes.) Initially, the young girl supports the Shah, as she has been instructed in school, until her parents gently explain to her the genesis of the Shah's corrupt regime, and that the Shah's secret police have imprisioned, tortured, and killed members of her own family.
We see the period of euphoria that follows the Shah's flight, and the optimism as beloved uncles are freed from prison and the dreaded SAVAK is no more. This is a period of time we Americans know only from the Embassy hostage 'crisis', so it's very interesting that the movie doesn't mention that event at all. In fact, the USA is never mentioned by name, although there are depictions of some anti-American posters and signs in the backgrounds. Of much more import is the Iran-Iraq War, begun by Saddam Hussein's invasion in 1980. Due to our lack of relations, this period in Iran was pretty opaque to us, but Marjane shows how the privations of the costly war drove Iraqi society further into the arms of Islamic fundamentalists. Soon, the same liberal intellectuals who had been imprisoned under the Shah are back in the same prisons, this time not to come out. At one point Marjane relates how what were 3000 political prisoners under the Shah have become 300,000 under the Islamic Republic.
Marjane's story is that of a very normal girl, becoming an unremarkable young woman, but growing up in testing times. She is perhaps a bit smarter, more perceptive, and more outspoken than her friends, but that doesn't mean she can't also be cowardly, stupid, and unwise. Satrapi shows us all her unlovely acts as well as the good ones, which gives the narrative a great deal of power, sometimes humor, and feeling of truth.
Throughout the story, Marjane's family are her touchstone: her gentle and coping father, fiery and frustrated mother, and worldly-wise grandmother.
Grandmother (voiced by veteran French actress Danielle Darrieux) has some of the best lines, counselling her granddaughter on everything from how to smell good, and how to keep your breasts 'round,' to surviving a divorce, and above all, maintaining integrity. When Marjane leaves her family behind to finally go to Europe for good, she reflects that "freedom has a price." (Note: the Iranian goverment has critised the movie, sent a letter of protest to the French Embassy regarding its release, and has sucessfully pressured organizers of the 2007 Bangkok Film Festival not to run it, despite the fact that it has won several awards elsewhere.)
As noted, the graphic design is beautiful and powerful. Animation is limited but effective with some striking effects. Very nice nice voice roles by some prominent actors; besides the aforementioned Darrieux, the role of Marjane's mother is done by Catherine Denuve, and older Marjane is done by Chiara Mastroianni, Denuve's real-life daughter. Simon Abkarian stands up well among these vibrant women as Marjane's calm and sensitive father.
Highly recommended for all of us who ought to understand the Mideast better. Since Marjane's firtations with Western culture do include some sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll, not appropriate for young children, but I would say good to discuss with teens who have reached the age of reason.
This version was in French, with English subtitles. Apparently an English dub may exist (probably on eventual DVD--).