In my youth, I was always at the geek end of the freaks and geeks scale of outsiders. Despite that, I was still able to define my self in the same way that most high schoolers do: through media. Books, movies, music, all the usual markers.
Which makes me appreciate that I didn’t have to buy that Def Leppard tape from a black market seller in an alley and worry that I would be arrested if I was caught with it.
Marjane Satrapi did have to deal with just such things as a young child in Iran. As an adult, she wrote two well-received graphic novels, Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return about her life in and outside of Iran. Together, they have been made into an animated film, co-written and co-directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud.
Satrapi’s story is one that hits notes that we may have heard before . Reading Lolita in Tehran being a more recent example. A woman, influenced by media from the West, lives in under an oppressive regime that forces her to hide her face when doesn’t want to and finds a way to get through it. But, despite what may seem like a rehashing of ideas we’ve seen elsewhere, Persepolis is fascinating on its own.
Satrapi as a character is both frustrating and admirable. Throughout her life, she constantly finds her way into trouble. Her parents raise her to be free –- they were communists and progressives -- and her entire family was a target for the government.
Rebellion taught to her, she seems compelled to say the wrong thing at times, because she feels she’s speaking the truth. It’s both brave and stupid, considering the potential consequences of her actions.
The film never softens the rough edges on Marjane. She is not perfect by any means and sometimes her selfishness is truly stunning, as when she gets a man jailed on a whim.
We follow her through high school in Vienna, and college back in Iran. Her identity is constantly pulled in many directions, and at no time is this more evident than her stay in Austria. She denies her heritage then tries to reclaim it; she finds friends then she tells them off en masse.
As tense and enthralling as many of the scenes in Iran were, I found Satrapi’s time in high school the emotional and psychological center of the film. However, this could be more because many of the early scenes had a vignette feel to them.
The disconnect between successive scenes works better in the comics but comes across as choppy in the film, but that seemed to get smoothed out in the later portions of the film.
Persepolis’s animation expands upon the clean-line technique from Satrapi’s books. For the most part, the movie is in black and white, but the tones within the greys create a whole palette on its own.
Marjane visits an jailed uncle, and the prison that fills the screen, dark shadows on dark walls, towers over the seven-year old and eats up our entire vision. The backgrounds are static and sparse under the moving characters, but there are certainly moments where Iran’s beauty –- sometimes its fallen beauty –- is emphasized with detailed drawings.
And, surprisingly, despite that all the women are in veils, they were all distinct and recognizable through subtle details, such as noses and eyes, never leaving us confused.
The real surprise of the film is the humor it finds in its situation. By all accounts, the movie should have been wall-to-wall bleakness, but there are moments, many involving Marjane’s grandmother, that are truly funny; that use both the characters and the particular slapstick available to animation.
Persepolis isn’t truly great, but it is a movie that gets close. It manages to contain both the joy of a young woman falling in love and her rage at a society that keeps her family in prison. For that that alone it is worth seeing.