Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud/Sony Pictures Classics
Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud/France-United States 2007

There’s a tendency, given the current belligerent global posturing of the Iranian government and its unwillingness to combat domestically brewed terrorism, to automatically lump its entire populace in the same extremist boat. Therefore, what’s most striking about Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud’s cinematic adaptation of the former’s series of graphic novel memoirs about coming of age in the early days of the Islamic Revolution, is its universality. In telling its protagonist’s story through a recognizable lens of daily emotions and experiences the film single handedly dismantles any preconceived notions of Middle Eastern otherness.

Strikingly animated in an abstract style, the picture follows Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) from her earliest years through young womanhood. Over that period, she finds her happy existence with her mother (voiced by Catherine Deneuve), father (voiced by Simon Abkarian) and grandmother (voiced by Danielle Darrieux) uprooted when the Shah goes into exile and the Ayatollah takes over. She struggles with the patriarchal restrictions placed on female agency and the sudden dissolution of Western symbols from public life. When her parents – concerned for her safety – send her to school in Austria, the filmmakers complicate the depiction of a young girl growing up under difficult circumstances. It becomes something more, an exploration of the feelings of loss, loneliness and regret so often experienced by the exile.

The evocative animation serves as a direct and powerful response to the hyper-realist computer generated motifs so rampant today. The black-and-white backgrounds bare the haze of an old, faded photograph and the characters feature uniformly rounded faces, toothless mouths and wide eyes. At the same time, the filmmakers alternate between everyday evocations of the Tehran setting and heightened representations of Marjane’s unceasingly active imagination. The approach lends the movie the feel of the fever dream of an individual overwhelmed by a flood of memories of people, places and events rendered distant by time but ever present in the heart.

Persepolis deserves further commendation for evoking the ups and downs of Marjane’s existence with equal panache. She comes across as a strong willed, outspoken personality heroically unwilling to be cowed and silenced by the antagonism swirling around her. There might not be a more thrilling moment in the entire film then her proud, forceful rendition of “Eye of the Tiger” as a testament of that resolve. Thus, by the picture’s conclusion, it’d take an awfully strong composition to not genuinely admire her.

Most remarkably, Satrapi and Paronnaud have produced a movie that erases the boundaries between East and West. In grounding their rendition of Marjane’s life in abstractions and emotions rather than precise realism they draw out the familiar humanity thriving beneath the superficial cultural divide. The film closely concerns itself with the feelings that supplement her story rather than the narrative’s actual details. In the process, in spite of its sad subject, it proves a work of great faith in the human character, profound hope and limitless importance.

© 2007 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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