Posted by Joseph Gomez on Thursday, July 02, 2009
Affirmation of Eastern Civilization
If you, like me, are one of the many who were intrigued by the Iranian protests that started in June, than you will find the film Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical film based on her graphic novels about growing up during the Iranian protests of the 1970s, to be a formidable piece of world education and an enthralling dramatic entertainment.
The format of the film is a bit unusual for such heavy-handed material: the most unusual characteristic is not that the film is in black and white, nor the fact that it's based on a French graphic novel – but that the film is animated. The liberty animation provides for film is well suited for this story and its directors' vision.
When Marjane's parents (voiced by Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian) tell her of the history of the shah, the Vaudevillian presentation allows for an accurate, if somewhat simplistic, retelling of the past. Even the silhouetted bodies of protesters and soldiers provides an eerie aura about the proceedings. The simple facial expressions of Marjane's world offer clear and concise embodiments. Further evidence of the strength of animation in this film is made when Satrapi and her co-director Vincent Paronnaud travel into the realms of surrealism: the cascading jasmine falling from Marjane's grandmother's bosom is wonderfully beautiful and young Marjane's conversations with God have an emotional impact.
This is a smart film about an intelligent girl growing up under dire circumstances. Marjane is infinitely more interesting than most Western girls growing up in films. Marjane idolizes her mesmerizing Uncle Anouche (François Jerosme), who has been in prison and hiding, but offers up a greater vision of the world; she listens to Iron Maiden as a form of rebellion to the government; she moves to Europe where she discovers all the landmarks of adolescence and adulthood (education, artistry, puberty, love, sex, drugs, and yes – even more rock and roll). Marjane travels back home only to find a country that is as foreign to her as anything in Europe. Her journey to find her place in the world is an engaging one and is marked by more violence and tragedy.
And once again, animation is key. The scenes of torture and depression are not bogged down by melodramatic touches that would have been inescapable in a live-action film. And the whole film benefits from a touch of humor and surrealism that gives a bit of a lightness to the complex and dramatic material at hand which elevates the film.
The middle section of the film, while still highly effective, is a bit of a drag compared to the bookending Iranian segments of the film. Marjane's adventures in Vienna are familiar territory in anyone's growing adulthood. However, Satrapi and Paronnaud illustrate it with wit and energy, still finding value and purpose for Marjane's journey.
The story is a large one and at a slim 98 minutes, the film accomplishes to bring it to a decipherable level. It's powerful, smart, and tender. The film has immense heart and is very entertaining. Enjoy.
***1/2 (out of ****)
Note: make sure and watch the original French version with English subtitles. The voice casting in uniformly great. The English dubbed version is not a bad second choice though, with featured voices by Sean Penn and Gena Rowlands.