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Persepolis

Iranian Life During (and After) Wartime

Persepolis, co-written and co-directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud from Satrapi’s graphic novel, is one of the last of its kind: a traditional, hand-drawn, black-and-white animated film. Persepolis was made over three, labor-intensive years on a modest budget of $8.1 million. Deftly and movingly told, it chronicles Satrapi’s experiences growing up in Iran during the fall of the Shah and the Islamic Revolution that transformed Iran into a closed, repressive society and eventually forced Satrapi into permanent exile. Not surprisingly, Persepolis won the Special Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival for its affecting storytelling and imaginative animation.

Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud frame Persepolis through a series of black-and white flashbacks bookended by a sequence set in Paris as an adult Marjane 'Marji' Satrapi (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) contemplates whether to return to a repressive Iran or remain in France permanently. As the child of well-educated, Westernized Iranians, Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes Benites as a child and preteen) witnesses the Shah lose power to a coalition of students, intellectuals, political opponents, and Islamic fundamentalists. Ultimately, however, Islamic clerics wrest control of Iranian political, social, and cultural institutions. Marjane’s mother (Catherine Deneuve) and engineer father (Simon Abkarian) refuse to leave Iran. For them, exile means a new language, a new culture, and a loss of social status. The elder Satrapi envisions himself driving a taxi and his wife working as a housekeeper.

Forced to wear dark clothes and a headscarf, the ever-rebellious Marjane, listens to bootleg tapes from the West (she loves Iron Maiden), wears Western footgear (i.e., sneakers or tennis shoes) and a “Punk is Not Dead” denim jacket, which, of course, gets her in trouble with Guards of the Revolution. Communists, including Marjane’s uncle, Anouche (François Jerosme), are arrested, imprisoned and, in some cases, executed. Political repression intensifies when Iraq invades Iran. Iraq bombs Iran regularly, including Tehran. Concerned for her safety from Iraqi bombs and Muslim clerics, Marjane’s parents send her to study at a French-language school in Vienna.

Satrapi and Paronnaud add a few scenes, shuffle a few others, but ultimately translate the graphic novels into the animated medium as closely as possible. While that approach eliminates the element of surprise from Persepolis, it also doesn’t allow for the kind of active contemplation that reading does. One of the pleasures of reading Persepolis is in re-reading certain lines of dialogue or scenes, deciphering specific subtext and universal themes, and savoring Satrapi’s talent for characterization, especially her kindhearted grandmother.

While Persepolis is probably best appreciated by someone new to Satrapi's works, there’s still much to enjoy for everyone who has. While the characters are impressively expressive, it’s when the realities of war are illustrated through a variety of stark, disturbing images (e.g., Marjane and her family running for the basement as bombs fall around them, Marjane discovering a body in a bombed-out building, silhouetted figures marching across a battlefield) that Persepolis reaches the purest, most sublime expression of the waste and futility of war.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars