What does one do, or even say, about a film that is, by any measurement that matters, perfect? When considering Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
and Vincent Paronnaud
's finely etched animated adaptation of Satrapi's two-part autobiographical graphic novel about growing up in Tehran during the revolution and the Iran-Iraq War, the problem (if one could call it that) becomes particularly acute. By compressing into this film the myriad of themes that it handles, from religious oppression to teenage rebellion to cultural dissonance and war, the filmmakers could have easily encumbered it with a weight that would have outweighed its many sharp delights. But by some strange and fortunate circumstance born out of vision, patience, luck, and sheer unmitigated talent, they have managed to incorporate each of those weighty topics into a work of art that's light as a feather, in the manner of the true masterpiece.
In adapting Satrapi's book for the screen, the filmmakers could easily have gone the route that Robert Rodriguez
and Frank Miller
did with Miller's Sin City, after all, her emotive but simple black drawings would be many times easier to represent in film than, say, the luridly complex and many-colored works of many other graphic artists. But instead of simply replicating what was on the printed page, Satrapi and Paronnaud went to a much more expressive place, choosing instead to keep the spirit and basic look of those dark, simple pages of art, and just add a natural fluidity to it. The frame doesn't move much, leaving one with the impression of looking through a window into another world, where the characters practically float like dancers amid the layered fields of beautifully grey-shaded art, and the mood is grim and poetic. There is little background music or noise except when necessary, eschewing the clouding clutter of a Disney production, with the bright and clear vocals of an early Peanuts film -- and all the heartache-inducing simple truths which that implies. Article continues below
After a dour scene at an airport, and a beautiful credit sequence that scans like an interpretation of some lushly extravagant Sufi writing, Persepolis lands in Iran, where the young Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni
) plays evil games on unsuspecting kids and practices her karate. The land is in the midst of democratic and religious foment under the repressive rule of the Shah, soon to erupt in "this merry chaos" that follows his ouster by the Ayatollah-led uprising. The initial promise of the revolution starts to sour, and the religious police start to scour the streets of Tehran for those who violate their narrow view of modesty and acceptable Persian culture; one particularly Orwellian person says that the veil that Marjane is forced to wear "stands for freedom." Marjane hones her rebellious streak, wearing a shirt that reads "Punk is not ded" and rocking out to Iron Maiden cassettes bought from shifty-looking men selling black market Western music from underneath their trenchcoats ("Pink Floyd," "Jackson Michael").
Having drawn the chilling veil of a Taliban-like theocratic state around Marjane's family, the filmmakers deepen the shadows with their nightmarish rendering of the senseless slaughter of the Iran-Iraq War, adding to the sense of nationalistic religious fervor gripping the fearful city. Between the bombs falling on Tehran and the worries of Marjane's parents that her rebellious attitude will land her in trouble, and so ship her off to school in Vienna. For Marjane, this ends up not so much as freedom but instead as the spark that sets off years of explorative indecision and agonizing over her true place in the world, driven between her Persian identity and longing for a pre-Ayatollah freedom that she can now only seem to find in the lonely West. Back home, her grandmother (voiced with saucy hauteur by Danielle Darrieux) sets an example of how to be an Iranian woman who doesn't suffer fools lightly, reminding her, for instance, that "the first marriage is practice for the second."
Nicely avoiding the melodrama that would be almost inescapable were any of the above rendered in live action, Persepolis keeps a wicked gleam in its protagonist's wryly-cocked face all throughout, reminding us that there will be no sob story, though tears are likely to fall. This is a cold tale of geopolitical realties told in a French-inflected fairytale spirit. This is a lament for lost glories, for the wonders of a proud civilization being ground into the dirt by power-mad fanatics. This is also a film that feels the need to remind us that "Abba is for wimps." Perfect.