Based on Director Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novels, Persepolis is a candid adaptation of her critically acclaimed coming of age story. Satrapi and fellow comic book artist Vincent Paronnaud, co-direct Satrapi’s directorial debut. Together they have made a successful transition from page to screen without compromising the original charm and ambition that won Satrapi’s novel it’s popularity. Electing to let the black and white drawings from her graphic novel be painstakingly recreated and brought to life with traditional 2D animation, the pair have taken an unusual and risky gamble in a time when 3D and digital animation is expected. The screen adaptation owes a large part of it’s success to this decision. It’s simplistic beauty, void of digital manipulation or trickery conveying a story driven by narrative, something rarely seen in cinema. Credit should also be given to Satrapi’s stringent fidelity to her original work. Where more experienced film makers might have side stepped Marjane’s inner emotional turmoil, favouring political drama and social education, Satrapi has not let this be her main motivation. Instead the co-director’s have purposefully and delicately used the political landscape as a means to envelope and add dramatic weight to her story.
It’s 1979 and Marjane “Marji” Satrapi is a nine-year-old girl whose dreams of becoming the future Prophet of Iran are replaced by the more adult excitement of politics. Spellbound by her uncle Anouche, an idealistic communist, who tells Marji his tales of communist persecution, exile and political imprisonment. Marji’s impressionable young mind is affected immediately by his fierce conviction, chanting half understood slogans and chasing the children of suspected secret policemen of the Shah. When the Islamist revolution begins to fill the political vacuum left by the Shah and Anouche is executed for his beliefs, Marji begins to question everything that she thought she once knew about the world, her country and even her confident, God.
As the Islamic authorities begin to enforce radical laws stamping out impropriety, introducing the veil and banning alcohol and music, Marji undergoes radical changes of her own, hitting puberty with a rebellious attitude and taking after her outspoken uncle Anouche. Openly spelling out the hypocrisy and misogyny of modesty enforcement upon the young women of her class, it’s Marji’s rebellious disregard that finally force her parents to send Marjane to Europe, for her own safety.
Some of the film’s memorable and heartfelt moments are the conversations between Marjane and her Grandmother. Satrapi uses these moments to represent a connection to an Iran that existed before revolution and dictatorship. Grandmother Satrapi is an active heroine, teaching little Marji to be brave in the face of adversity and acting as a moral compass to Marjane when she is struggling to stay true to her beliefs.
The intimate and loving scenes between the pair are so affecting thanks to the animation and voice work of Gabrielle Lopes Benites as the young Marji and Danielle Darrieux as Grandma. Satrapi has kept these tender moments in her film, extracting them straight from the graphic novel as a window into her personal memories and non are so tender or so private than the final scene before Marji is sent away to Europe. Grandma Satrapi changes to lie in bed and talk with her granddaughter, loosening her bra it releases jasmine flowers she keeps in there, enveloping Marji with their scent. Only animation could allow for such freedom and grace in portraying such a private moment.
Some may be put off by the political history lesson that Persepolis gives, but in telling the narrative through a visual feast of exotic artistic motifs and combining them with some clever editing and dissolves, Satrapi sways freely through exposition told through fantastical elements of theatre rather than dull lecturing. An audience are never given the opportunity to drift off or glaze over.
Satrapi’s motivation may not be a social lesson but it does address the issue of the Middle East from a human perspective as opposed to the headlines and preconceptions of the people of Iran. Western media would have us believe that all Iranians are a people motivated and defined by hate, Persepolis chooses to represent another side to the story and convey the human face of Iran as opposed to the political. Although Persepolis was created in Europe back in 2008 it’s overarching ideas exploring the dislocation of War and its dissection on the idea of home, are a befitting reminder of the human face in Europe and it’s refugee crisis.
Satrapi spends the first half of the film in Iran, dissolving in and out of snippets of daily life as revolution turns to war. As she grows into her teens and early 20’s during the early and mid 90’s, Marjane experiences the stark contrast of Western life in Europe. Though not torn apart by war, Europe’s dissatisfied youth with money to spend and time to spare seem laughable when seen through Marjane’s eyes. The condescension she experiences thanks to Europe’s media informed view of the Middle East casts Marjane as the outsider and literally leaves her out in the cold, longing for home. Paradoxically, when she does make her return after being shunned by Europe she returns only to feel an outsider in her own country. This bittersweet exile is represented in a stand out montage, screen grabbed from the pages of Satrapi’s pages, depicting her depression and loneliness after returning to Iran. Her despair is beautifully captured and influenced by the German expressionist artists and directors like Fritz Lang and F.W Murnau; the angular designs, exaggerated and tortured aesthetic work to convey the social and emotional upheaval of both character and country, fleshing out the 2D characters with visual style and texture.
A film about the Iranian revolution may sound dry on first glance and although Satrapi might not be pushing any boundaries of cinema with Persepolis, artistically she has created a story that might just trick an audience into engaging with a volatile subject matter.