There’s a great deal of humanity invested in the stark, mostly black-and-white animated frames of Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical Persepolis, and that might seem counterintuitive, given the simply rendered film’s utter disdain for the pedantic display of modern illustration and CGI techniques. But the ingredient that makes Persepolis a winner in spite of the dearth of visual sophistication is co-writer/co-director Satrapi’s own plaintive, often very funny, and always very human voice, her probing intellect, and her unassailably keen understanding of the human condition regardless of cultural circumstance.
Based on Satrapi’s acclaimed graphic novel of the same name, Persepolis is the animated retelling, in French, of her first 21 years—the early life of an Iranian girl whose coming-of-age is split between her politically and martially ravaged home in Tehran and the safe but anomic refuge of boarding school in Vienna. She is assisted on this film version of her original graphic novel, for which she was the sole author/illustrator, by little-known French writer/director Vincent Paronnaud.
In an era fraught with polarized thinking on relations between West and Middle East, it’s refreshing to hear a voice as uncompromisingly honest, sometimes ferociously pointed and yet so ultimately unassuming as Satrapi’s. Born of a liberal, mostly secularized family during the reign of the former Iranian Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, she grows up wearing Western fashions and loving Bruce Lee movies, versed in notions of civil disobedience by her progressive parents and by her revered Uncle Anoush, a student of Marxism who spent nine years as a political prisoner of the shah.
But the family’s disdain for the shah, a Western puppet unafraid to rain cruelties on the heads of perceived political enemies, quickly turns into a case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for when the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 ousts the shah in favor of the more repressive, Islamic fundamentalist regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini.
As the narration of Persepolis unravels (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni, as the young Marjane), we quickly see that Satrapi is no defender of fundamentalist atrocities; nor is she by any stretch a Western apologist, either—though she is unapologetically smitten, like so many of her Iranian girlfriends, with Western culture, lipstick and the Bee Gees and her trademark denim jacket, which proclaims in a bold scrawl that Punk Is Not Ded.
In short, Satrapi is the missing link, the voice Westerners never hear when they watch video of virulent fundamentalists, madding crowds storming embassies and burning world leaders in effigy in places like Tehran and Bagdad and Kabul. She is the anguished child of an anxious burgher milieu, not so very different from our own, who wonders why her mostly quiet little kingdom is suddenly beset by war and paranoia and overt cruelties. She is slowly overcome by the creeping realization that faceless foreign powers shape her destiny far more than the people and institutions that form the bedrock of her budding worldview.
That Persepolis is also a coming-of-age story, in the most contemporary sense of that phrase, lends adhesion to our grasp of Satrapi’s poignant story. It also makes for much-needed comic relief. More telling even than the film’s occasional moments of (generally well-explicated) political discourse are the little moments of universal truth: schoolgirl Marjane hiding pop-star pinups in her notebook; attending her first punk-rock show with privileged hipster kids in Vienna; falling in and out of love with a string of narcissistic boys; talking about men with “little dicks” with her beloved but very salty grandma.
The animation, for all its relative simplicity, is beautiful in its own right—aesthetically satisfying on one level, yet all the more powerful for its evocation of the author’s fractiously evolving adolescent perception. Satrapi’s stylized illustrations call to mind, at times, R. Crumb and latter-day independent comix, but with added flourishes of warmth and whimsy that elevate the resulting animated story to the level of real artistry.
It’s a pity that, despite Satrapi’s penetrating wit and the unvarnished honesty of her observation, a film like Persepolis will never hold the same galvanizing sway as a Michael Moore polemic or the latest fairly unbalanced Fox network newsbrief. But then holding sway was never her goal in the first place. A real girl from a real world that most of us on this side of the East/West divide never see, Satrapi asks us to understand, rather than believe. And on that count alone, Persepolis is as accomplished and affecting as any other film you’re liable to see this year.