Saturday, January 26, 2008


Persepolis (5/5)

Persepolis is a kind of film rarely seen in America: an animated film for adults. When I say “adult” I’m not referring to the ultra-violent zaniness found in Japanese animation or the double entendres meant to go over children’s heads in movies like Shrek, I’m referring to a complicated protagonist attempting to simultaneously understand and manage overpowering change in the world around her. I don’t think Bugs Bunny had the same depth of problems that Marjane Satrapi has (of course, I supposed he was struggling with living in Hobbes’s nature during that whole rabbit season/duck season debacle). Even referencing Bugs seems a bit silly since animation has supposedly evolved to encompass many genres beyond children’s film. Or at least outside of the United States boarders it has, and I’m sure no one would be surprised to learn that Persepolis has French subtitles.

Persepolis is based on an autobiographical comic book by Marjane Satrapi about growing up in Iran, being sent to Europe during her adolescents, and returning as she transitions into an adult. Growing up during the Iranian revolution, Marjane has a sense of wonder about the chaos around her. She becomes particularly intrigued by her uncle, a communist who was jailed and was only recently released from prison. Fueled by her uncle’s stories and her parents political involvement she rallies a group of neighborhood kids to chase the son of an Iranian torturer so that they can gouge out his eyes with nails. They are stopped by an adult before the bloody deed is done. Marjane even begins talking back to her teacher in school, contradicting the Iranian status quo. After the Ayatollah comes to power Marjane’s family fears what will happen to their outspoken daughter and decide to send her with some friends in Europe.

Once in Europe Marjane wrestles with the travails of puberty while trying to reconcile her exotic Iranian heritage with her adolescent need to fit in. At first she stays at a Catholic boarding school, but when one of the nuns affronts Iranians Marjane makes the uncouth comment that all nuns were once prostitutes. This leads to her moving out into a series of living arrangements as well as a string of boyfriends. When she discovers one of her boyfriends in bed with another woman, Marjane becomes despondent and gets kicked out of her apartment and winds up living on the streets. It would be easy to shrug off Marjane’s self-destructive behavior as her being a self-involved teen. It would be easy except that when Marjane wakes up in a hospital from malnutrition she chastises herself for becoming upset over a relationship when her own uncle was subject to incarceration for merely speaking his mind. It’s this kind of self-reflection that prevents the film from falling into the kind of narcissism that plagues so many other coming of age stories. After her brush with death Marjane decides to return to Iran where she must confront the intolerance of a government run by a religion.

Like the comic book the animation is deceptively simple. The film is mostly black and white and the characters are drawn with thick lines. Anyone who’s read the comic book will wonder whether they fit in most of the original medium. While the filmmakers do a good job at referencing many of Marjane’s stories, many of the vignettes are necessarily truncated. However, this is hardly a downfall of the film which utilizes animation to communicate Marjane’s tale as succinctly as possible. When she falls in love with a boy, for example, we see her floating above the ground with him, which, for a teenage romance, is just about all the audience needs to know. Each moment of the film is, like the animation, told clearly and simply, but as the film moves forward the moments gather greater strength. It’s like the filmmakers are putting down one pebble after anther until, before you know it, they’ve constructed an entire wall.

The intellectual middle class nature of Marjane’s family seems so familiar that I often found myself wondering what I would do if suddenly transplanted in a country where you could be jailed for walking with someone of the opposite sex who wasn’t related to you and, worst of all, alcohol was banned. Persepolis is a needed reminder that small minded rulers too often rule over a more enlightened populace (it says something that the same sentence could describe the state of today’s America). For all the talk of cultural differences, it should be remembered that certain ideals can be disseminated by dialogue, even if they’re unsuccessfully translated through the barrel of a gun.

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