A child’s perspective is at once naïve and pointedly insightful. Their gaze often pierces the layers of pretense that surround matters of politics and religion. Stripping away these outer coverings exposes the core of these issues in a way that renders them both vulnerable and unforgivable. Marjane’s Satrapi’s autobiographical Persepolis is the epitome of this process. Part personal, part national history, the film explores Marjane’s (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) childhood in an Iran in the midst of violent change that paves the way for a deeply repressive Islamic revolution. Fearing for her safety, Marjane’s parents send her to school in Vienna .There Marjane experiences relative safety and freedom, but cannot abide the indifferent nihilism that pervades European culture. She returns to Tehran only to enter into a hasty marriage that quickly sours. Marjane then decides to leave her home once again for France.
Satrapi’s decision to have Persepolis follow the same form as her comic book series of the same name was a daring one that paid off enormously. The familiar anonymity of a flat, non-specified setting and characters lends the story a universal feel without oversimplifying it. By reducing the story to simple strokes of black, white, and gray, Satrapi pares it down to its bare, powerful essentials. There is nothing to distract the viewer from the almost painful clarity of Marjane’s story. That being said Persepolis is not a bleak canvas of a film. It is beautiful in its simplicity. At one point a field vanishes beneath beating butterfly wings before being swept away by the sea. Also, at a time when the film industry is obsessed with creating expensive “real-life” cartoons such as Shrek, Persepolis’s minimal animation serves as a welcome change.
Marjane moves through this artificial landscape with determination and more than a little sass. Her attitude mirrors that of her grandmother (voiced by Danielle Darrieux) who has spunk and opinions to spare and advises Marjane to be true to herself and leave her mark on the world. Along with being high-spirited, Marjane is far from being a meek, straight-laced heroine, which only adds to her charm. Punk music blasts from her speakers; she worships Bruce Lee and discusses her destiny as a prophet during nightly chats with God. She can also be mean; early on in the film Marjane persuades a group of her friends to arm themselves with nails and chase a boy on a bike whose father was a known supporter of the Shah. Marjane’s mother (voiced by Catherine Deneuve) quickly puts an end to the violent game, but the scene is an excellent glimpse into the dark little cruelties children unconsciously commit against one another.
The film is particularly adept at portraying different kinds of loss. Marjane develops a strong bond with her Uncle Anoush after he is released from prison in the wake of the Shah’s overthrow. Anoush’s nickname for Marajane “l’étoile de ma vie” or “star of my life” reveals how vital and affectionate this relationship is. Sadly Anoush’s progressive ideas make him an enemy of the new government and he is eventually executed. The scenes that illustrate Marjane’s anguish at this junction are equal parts riveting and heartbreaking. As she clutches a carved swan Anoush made for her, the viewer is transported to an image of two white swans silhouetted against a sea of black that threatens to engulf them. These dark waters of despair and confusion are familiar to all those who have lost someone they love. A similar tone pervades scenes depicting Marjane’s stay in Vienna. Though she tries to lose herself in the loud, fast-paced life of a carefree European teenager, she carries Iran and her grandmother’s voice echoing “stay true to yourself” with her always. Persepolis follows the same motto and the result is nearly flawless; a hard-hitting coming of age tale of an individual and a nation full of whimsy, gusto, and stark beauty.
Weak: 1 Star Average: 2 Stars Good: 3 Stars Very Good: 4 Stars Excellent: 5 Stars