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Persepolis Print E-mail
Monday, 27 October 2008
ImageMarjane Satrapi grew up in Iran; she was about 7 when the Shah was overthrown.  Later, she was educated in Vienna, returned to a far more oppressive Iran than she left, and finally moved to France.  She wrote and drew two autobiographic novels in comic book form; they were the basis of this extraordinary movie.

There isn’t anything else quite like this.  It’s definitely not for children—it fully earns that PG-13 rating—but it isn’t grimly purposeful and serious, either.  It’s remarkably light, even occasionally funny, but also honest, true and forthright.  What with all the troubles centering on the Middle East in recent years, this movie is especially helpful and instructive to Westerners, puzzled by the people of that region.  Satrapi doesn’t make any claims that Iranians are just like everyone else, but her story does display their common humanity, their weaknesses and strengths, their passions and yearnings.  And it’s also a highly entertaining, involving story.

She adapted her graphic novels to the screen with French animation director Vincent Paronnaud, and the two of them co-directed the film.   The featurette on the disc, “The Hidden Side of Persepolis,” is a very clear demonstration of how they worked together, and even clearly explains the very basics of animation.  Satrapi, clearly a lively, determined young woman, even acted out most of the characters for the animators.

It begins Tehran in 1978, when as a child she dreamed of being a galactic prophet and getting old enough to shave her legs.  She likes French fries with ketchup and Bruce Lee.  Her parents are prominent in their society, kind and loving to their only child.  Majrane, usually called Marj, is especially fond of her wise, salty old grandmother, and initially a firm supporter of the Shah (since that’s what she’s been taught in school).  She keeps hearing the word “communist,” but is uncertain how to regard it; the school and her playmates seem to think it’s very bad, but her beloved Uncle Anouche, released from prison after nine years, seems to have been a communist himself.  Anouche strongly supports the overthrow of the Shah—but once this happens, he’s imprisoned again (Marj visits him in his cell), and executed not long thereafter. By 1982, Iran has become an oppressive place, but at first the people are willing to go along with the new, stringent rules: in public, women always must wear black clothing, complete with a black head scarf, and can’t wear makeup.  But this only makes makeup and Western-style clothing more fascinating to Marj and her friends.  She goes from a fan of the Bee Gees to a devotee of Iron Maiden. 

Just as things are starting to get much worse—a playmate is killed—Marj is sent to Vienna in 1986.  She’s stunned by the very different society into which she is plunged, and surprised by the changes in her own body as she turns from a girl to a woman—she grows eight inches, her breasts and ass enlarge, and she gains a beauty spot by her nose.  For a while, she embraces the party life of Vienna, changing groups of friends as some graduate and others arrive.  But a misguided love affair goes awry, she blows up at her strange landlady (and the landlady’s dog), and ends up living on the streets.

She feels like an outsider in Austria, unwanted and alone, and so eventually returns to Iran—where she’s still an outsider, as lonely at home as she was in Vienna.  Her grandmother is still supportive, but otherwise, no one really seems to understand her.  She goes through an unhappy marriage, becomes increasingly dismayed by the severe oppression around her.  “In our desperate quest for happiness,” she says, “we ended up forgetting we weren’t free.”  She finally embraces the basic teaching of her grandmother—in life, everyone always has a choice—and heeds the older woman’s urgings to develop integrity.  She moves to France.

It’s quite amazing that a story this detailed, full of nuance, humor, terror (Satrapi attempts suicide), love, conflict, etc., can be told in animation and in just over ninety minutes.  But it’s all here, a rich, involving and amusing story.  It was drawn in a style imitating Satrapi’s own, simple, uncluttered compositions, only as much detail as necessary.  The backgrounds are often textured, which works very well in this high definition presentation.  It has a clean, surprisingly spacious look; the animation is very simple, but very sophisticated as well—there’s nothing childish about this, and there is no attempt to recreate “reality” on screen.

The voice of Marjane as an adult is by Chiara Mastroianni, and her mother’s voice is that of Catherine Deneuve—who really is Chiara’s mother.  Both are fluent enough in both French and English that they do the voices on both tracks.  Others on the French track include long-time French star Danielle Darrieux,  Simon Abkarian and François Jerosme.  Voices on the English track include Gena Rowlands, Sean Penn and Iggy Pop (who’s seen in some of the supplements as well).

It’s almost entirely in black and white; color is used very sparingly, mostly in scenes set in Satrapi’s present (that is, when she moves to France).  The movie is stylized, but not in the manner of Moslem art; instead, it more resembles classic, simple comic strips of the TinTin or Peanuts style.  But there’s nothing simplistic about the movie; it was created one frame at a time, and the co-directors had complete control over every detail.  Another featurette shows scenes as they changed from “animatics” (very simple drawings, only slightly animated) to the full animation of the finished film.  Several deleted sequences are discussed, and the reasons for their removal made clear and understandable.

Initially, it seems puzzling that Sony Pictures Home Entertainment released “Persepolis” in Blu-ray high definition—the drawing style doesn’t seem to need high definition presentation.  But you soon notice that the blacks are very deep and solid, the very wide range of grays, and that there are no video artifacts at all.  The textured backgrounds are well-rendered without being obtrusive.

There aren’t a lot of extras here, but the two “making-of” featurettes, the French-language “The Hidden Side of Persepolis” and the English-language “Behind the Scenes of Persepolis,” are quite different from one another, and both intelligent and informative, very much worth watching.  The animatics-to-animation featurette is also worthwhile.

And so is “Persepolis” itself.  It’s a thoughtful, entertaining film on a subject few Americans know anything about—except that it’s also about life and how it is lived, and we’re all familiar with that.  After a while, “Persepolis” doesn’t seem like a report from a strange, faraway land, but the anecdotal life of a close friend.

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