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Persepolis: An Iranian punk rocker grows up

by Glen Baity

If you grew up in the 1980s, you’ve probably seen your childhood reflected in about 1,000 coming-of-age movies. But a fresh perspective can make just about any old story seem new, and it doesn’t get much fresher than Persepolis.

The film is animated, voiced in French, subtitled in English and set largely in Tehran. Any one of these might be enough to steer you away from this film, but you’ll lose out big if you do. Yes, it unfolds in a complicated world, full of political conflicts, cultural dissonance and stringent gender roles.

Improbably, and to great effect, all of this is funneled into one young girl’s life story.

Her name: Marjane Satrapi (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes and Chiara Mastroianni), the only child of a liberal Iranian family in the heyday of the Shah. To keep their daughter safe and maintain a sense of calm, the Satrapi family is forced to conceal their more progressive beliefs from an encroaching government theocracy that quashes dissidents with an iron fist. Marji, a budding independent thinker, consequently loses much of her youth to the countrywide strife before, during and after the war between Iran and Iraq in the early 1980s.

The film, directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, is taken from her autobiographical comic of the same name, in which she recounts her childhood before the Islamic Revolution; her tumultuous adolescence at school in Vienna; and her return to a country that seeks to institutionally suppress everything interesting about her.

The surprising thing about Satrapi’s story – indeed, the point of it – is how it cries out for normalcy. At times, Marjane seems to share a personality with this Oscar season’s other girl superhero, Juno MacGuff. Both are young women with hip record collections, prone to mouth off to their elders and make inappropriate jokes at inappropriate times. And both have rough exteriors designed to conceal their considerable vulnerability.

But the similarities end there. That’s because Marjane is burdened with dogged individuality in a part of the world that, to say the least, doesn’t prize that quality in its young women. The friction this causes is often heartbreaking, but looking back on her life, Satrapi finds comedy in odd places (such as when Marjane conducts a shady street corner deal with a bootlegger to score an Iron Maiden cassette). The film is full of little moments like this, which give it much-needed levity at unexpected turns. It’s those small surprises that make the film such a charmer.

There are moments of brutal reality, too, that underscore the struggles Marji and her peers face. In one scene, Marji’s mother struggles to talk her neighbor’s son out of becoming a suicide bomber – hardly the stuff of John Hughes movies, to be sure, but something young people in that part of the world grapple with from time to time.

Even the harshest scenes, however, have a beauty all their own thanks to Paronnaud and Satrapi’s breathtaking animation, which is dreamily surreal and impossible to divert your eyes from. Much of the film is illustrated in sharp black and white, with dashes of subtle color, a technique that makes its own point about the stifling expectations of state-enforced Islamic law.

It’s rare that I don’t want a movie to end, but I gladly would’ve spent another hour with Marji and her family. I don’t know if Persepolis is perfect. I do know that I can’t imagine a single change that would make it more heartfelt, more fun, or more resonant. The film walks a hundred fine lines without breaking a sweat, its animation is gorgeous, bringing out the best in Satrapi’s well-drawn narrative. The voice acting is expressive, and capable of breaking your heart, even if you don’t understand a word of French.

And it’s mercifully easy to grasp, even if you’re like me and have a barely-passing acquaintance with modern Iranian history. With Persepolis, Satrapi isn’t trying to give a history lesson (though you’ll certainly learn a thing or two) so much as share her experience in a vivid, original way. And that, in the end, is what makes Persepolis a film that will stick with you: the story it tells, and the way it tells it, is wholly unique. It’s a haunting, poignant, and all-around brilliant film that can’t be honestly compared to anything before it.

To comment on this story, send your e-mail to glen.baity@gmail.com.

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