Director: Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis is a moving and beautifully rendered biography set against a backdrop of great social, political and cultural upheaval. It’s a narratively intricate film, setting as it does a coming-of-age story against a story of war and revolution, but all the elements are woven together seamlessly in this really one of a kind movie.
Marjane (Chiara Mastroianni) is a young Iranian who comes of age as the Shah is overthrown and experiences first-hand the ensuing war with Iraq and the establishment of a new political and religious order. Given what happens later, life under the Shah is a period of relative social freedom which disintegrates once Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's regime is installed, a regime that, amongst many other oppressive policies, insists that women cover themselves with veils – though, as the film points out time and again, the men can dress however they want, even in Western fashions. Marjane fights against the new social rules; she comes from a family of political subversives who break the rules in ways both subtle, such as attending secret parties, and more overt, such as the political activities of her uncle, Anouch (Francois Jerosme), who is imprisoned under the Shah, released when he’s overthrown, and then returned to prison and executed by the new regime. Not wanting Marjane to succumb to the same fate as Anouch, her parents arrange for her to go away to Austria, where she’ll stay with friends of the family while attending a French school. Her living arrangements quickly fall through and she spends the next few years bouncing around from place to place and struggling to fit in. She becomes friends with a group of Punks who are really just rich kids whose biggest problems amount to the fact that they “have to” fly to Brazil or some other exotic locale for Christmas with the family. She eventually becomes disillusioned with them and their insistence that life is meaningless; she falls in and out of love twice and is disillusioned in that, too, and decides that it’s time to go home, where once again she struggles to find her place in the world.
The story that Persepolis relates, which is adapted from four graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi, is very complex and I’ve really only touched on all that it explores. The story is alternately comedic and tragic, melancholy and joyful as it explores a nation’s incredible upheaval, and Marjane’s continuing love for what her country means to her. This is really an epic story – the sequences which show the Iran-Iraq war are especially well-done – and animation is perhaps the only medium that could have done it justice, blending as it does brutal reality with fantasy and memory. The animation is beautiful, fully complementing the spirit of the tale being related.
It’s amazing to think – and I say this from the perspective of a Westerner who either wasn’t alive or wasn’t old enough to be politically conscious when much of this story takes place – that Iran in the 1970s was a fairly “Westernized” nation, and more amazing to think how quickly and completely the social aspect of the nation changed. In this respect, I think this is a movie that all women should see because it focuses on how tenuous women’s rights can be when the religious far right gains complete control of political and social policies.