When my Critics Choice ballot arrived, the decision for best feature animated film of 2007 was easy: “Persepolis” hands down over anything in the running.
Based on the graphic novels, “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” and “Persepolis: The Story of a Return,” this tender and earnest memoir comes to us from the author herself. She is Marjane Satrapi, born in Tehran in 1969. By the time the Islamic Revolution came along, she was approaching her teenage years, reveling in Michael Jackson and crazy for punk. Almost overnight, this Westernized kid is being assaulted on the streets by righteous militants wondering why she is not properly adorned in a veil or burqa.
In the classroom, she is annoyed by slavishly obedient teachers who are touting the extremist line, probably to save their jobs.
Purists turn up their noses at the very thought of a graphic novel, and I must confess that I, too, approached the concept with reservations. I still do, but I must quickly add that “Persepolis” is a happy exception, and it is no surprise that it is required reading in many colleges and universities. (I wonder why the books are not used more extensively in high school.)
Time of upheaval
The books are fresh, incisive and often very funny. But they also speak to the pain that comes with moral and social upheaval, especially when friends and family are killed or imprisoned, or formerly friendly neighbors will turn you in if they see you toting a bottle of vodka.
Satrapi and co-director Vincent Paronnaud transfer the books’ magic to the screen with clear, black-and-white images, often approaching the look and visual texture of woodcuts. No need for fancy pyrotechnics or Pixar here. The images are arresting, almost radiant in their simplicity. It’s the story that prevails, and as told by Satrapi, it is one devoid of self-pity or uncomfortable crescendos. We don’t get the sense of a girl going through hell, or anything like the melodramatic emotions or encounters that prevail in many stories about the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s.
It is a terrific history lesson, of course, but always front and center is the story of a girl who wants to have fun, but despite moments of selfishness, gradually develops a moral and political conscience. If the author-director has fun ridiculing the extremists, the movie is quick to point out that the deposed Shah of Iran was a villain in his own right, what with his jails and torture chambers; and that the Shah was placed in power by Western powers, including our own government. At the root of it all, our concern was and still is that old nemesis, oil.
We see Marjane talking to God one minute and complaining about curfews the next, teasing sourpuss teachers in class and then visiting her Uncle Anoosh in jail. Poor Anoosh. Fed up with the Shah’s murderous regime, he escaped to Moscow, where he earned a degree. With the Shah deposed and the revolution at hand, he returns feeling redeemed, only to be imprisoned by the Islamists for communist leanings. Quite a reward for loving your country. In the most touching scene in the movie (and in the book), Marjane visits her uncle in jail. He has carved a swan for her, and it seems that it is with Anoosh that this punk-rock kid with Adidas begins to intuit there is more to life than her music.
As things worsen, Marjane’s parents send her to school in Vienna. Then she moves to France, where she falls in love, fails, and then returns to her homeland. She, too, seems to be living in the shadow of her favorite uncle, a girl who loves a home to which she cannot return and be herself.
Film is a gem
There are so many wonderful touches in “Persepolis.” One is Marjane’s relationship with her grandmother. Voiced by Danielle Darrieux, she is Marjane’s favorite, a role model who can give her advice on keeping firm breasts and then chastise her for a careless, thoughtful act toward a neighbor.
“Persepolis” is a delightful experience, warm and insightful, serious and whimsical. Chiara Mastroianni voices Marjane, and her real-life mother, the legendary Catherine Deneuve, talks for the mother. As a work of art and a fine example of a narrative unvarnished with pretension, this animated feature is a gem.
DIRECTED BY Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
SCREENPLAY BY Marjane Satrapi, based on her graphic novels
STARRING voices of Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux and Simon Abkarian. In French with English subtitles.
RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes