dir: Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud
Persepolis is an animated movie about the life of Marjane Satrapi, a French-speaking Iranian woman who grew up in the 70s / 80s in Iran and Europe. That might not sound like a particularly riveting choice of subject matter, but this is a fascinating life story told well with evocative handdrawn 2 dimensional artwork. Seriously.
As such, it’s probably the only animated movie about Iran many people will ever hear of during their short lives, and probably one of the only ones that tells the story of both the impact of the Shah on Iranian society, and the subsequent Islamic Revolution and war with Iraq in the 80s. As well, it tells it as a bitter-sweet work of art combined with a woman’s tale of coming of age in difficult circumstances.
No other film, animated or otherwise, in this century or any other, in French or any other language, is going to have a character deliver a rendition of Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger with as much conviction and as much hilarity as what occurs in the middle of this movie.
Satrapi transformed the story of her life into a graphic novel previously, and this is essentially a bringing to life of that graphic novel. Named after the ancient Persian capital, it gives the lucky viewer a glimpse into Iranian life that would rarely be seen otherwise.
As a child Marji, as she is called, is the product of her sophisticated environment. Though patriotically Iranian, her parents, extended family and their friends all speak French and live like cosmopolitan citizens of the world that they think they are. However, they all have family and friends who have been locked up by the evil Shah’s secret police for being dissidents and for not loving their American-appointed monarch with as much of their hearts as they could.
She thrills to tales of derring-do and Marxist revolution, blind to the reality of what is actually happening to people incarcerated for their political beliefs. An uncle is released, and barely has time to tell Marji his story before the Shah is overthrown.
There isn’t even really a honeymoon period, a lull between storms for the Iranian people. The mullahs who take charge impose their law upon the populace with a desire to return to a level of societal purity and tradition that never previously existed. The worldly, hip Satrapis and their friends kowtow out of necessity, with Marji finding refuge in contemporary pop music as if it’s the dissident cries of revolutionaries. Bee Gees? ABBA? Michael Jackson? A hilarious scene sees Marji going to a ‘seedy’ side of town in order to score some cassettes from creepy guys wearing long coats. Soon, as with most fans who build up a tolerance, she ends up on the hard stuff: Iron Maiden!
She headbangs her way through the growing unease in Tehran, as the war starts ramping up and the increasing oppression of regular folk by those in power and the moral Guardians who patrol the streets becomes increasingly unbearable. More and more, the blood of martyrs and patriots that flows through the streets and apparently irrigates the nation’s agriculture, is used to justify more and more repressive edicts, mostly aimed at Iranian women. The Satrapi women, as in Marji’s mum and beloved grandmother, adhere lacking a choice to the requirement to wear the veil, but it comes off as soon as they’re indoors. They, like everyone chafe under the strictures in place, but much worse is occurring at the same time.
The same dissidents jailed and tortured by the Shah’s CIA-trained goons are rounded up, jailed, tortured and executed, only in greater and greater numbers, even as millions of Iranians and Iraqis die over the course of the war.
Grim fucking times, you’d have to agree. But Marjane’s style in telling her own story, which from here moves to Europe as her parents try to protect her from the insanity of life under the Islamic Revolution, is fluid and unsentimental, with an eye towards the absurd and the lyrical rather than the maudlin. The artwork, which many might regard as simplistic in this day and age of stunning CGI masterpieces courtesy of Pixar, or the orgies of colour that Miyazaki produces, is more than functional and performs with the supreme virtue of aiding in telling the story rather than hindering or distracting from it.
The artwork and the pacing of the tale work well together to regale the viewer with her story, and Iran’s story of the era, in an evocative and meaningful manner. For whatever sets of reasons, despite the fact that Marjane’s story in and of itself isn’t anything groundbreaking, the blend of the personal and the political/historical perfectly complement each other and never feel self-indulgent even as you’re getting a sad history lesson.
Upon moving to Vienna as a young teenager, Marjane’s story becomes more about her and less about Iran. Her description of the process of puberty is hilarious. He difficulties relating to the people around her are less so, but ultimately show a greater depth of character (to the character of Marjane) than simply positing either that once free of the repression of fundamentalists, that all would be right with the world.
It certainly isn’t. Marjane struggles with her sense of self and her Iranian identity with great difficulty, seeing as she does the difficulty involved in identifying herself as an Iranian, or what that even means in terms of speaking to people who regard her nation as a bunch of monstrous savages. At the same time, she’s no European despite her linguistic skills.
She finds temporary refuge amongst a group of punk-nihilist-anarchists, but eventually becomes disgusted with them, trapped as they are within the luxury of their middle class radical posturing and pretentiousness She discovers boys as well, which leads (as she looks back with a more cynical and self-critical eye) to a string of bad relationships and even worse decisions.
There is an inherent irony in the fact that a woman who survived the perils of the Iranian revolution and the Iran/Iraq war would become so undone by careless love and self-destructive behaviour, but she enters the darkest time in her life and it nearly kills her. Lost at sea in Europe, she desires the anchor of family and familiarity in Iran, but still remains trapped in the depths of a depression that can only be broken in the most hilarious fashion I can think of.
Throughout this tale she is unsparing about herself, but not overly so. She doesn’t wallow in her mistakes, nor does she flagellate herself in a creepy fashion. Her worst actions are ones that occur out of glib selfishness, and sometimes it takes her grandmother’s stern good sense to make her see what she’s done.
If I can level one criticism at this lovely and engaging animated movie, which I very much enjoyed, it’s that it seems to be building towards some kind of climax or at least resolution, and then it all just… evaporates, sort of. I realise that this is a fictional and artistic representation of a real person’s life that ends where it ends because Satrapi chooses it to end on an ambiguous note, it’s just that you end up feeling a bit like “that’s it?”
Not such a bad place to end, I guess. Leave them wanting more, isn’t that the motto? It’s just that you can’t help feeling that there’s something mundane about Marjane except for the fact that her story is being told so well. And when the storytelling ends, you’re left with a person’s tale about themselves told with the objective eye of an accomplished artist. This isn’t confessional weeping for it’s own sake or to catch Oprah’s eye. It’s an honest (yet fictional) appraisal of the world by a chain-smoking ex-punk who just happens to have survived the perils of the Ayatollahs where many others didn’t. And she tells her tale with style and wry humour, and I really could not have expected more from this wonderful movie.
8 times I thought my ability to appreciate this kind of thing had died after watching one too many Shrek films out of 10
“In this life you'll meet a lot of jerks. If they hurt you, tell yourself that it's their own stupidity that makes them act that way. That will keep you from responding to their meanness.” – sterling advice, Persepolis.