We've become so accustomed to our animated movies arriving slickly computer-generated and following the feel-good adventures of cute animals or cute monsters or cute cars that it's almost shocking at first to watch Persepolis, the new French film based on Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novels about growing up in Iran during the revolution.
Why? Because Persepolis is in black and white. Because the animation feels crude and hand-drawn. And because once we settle into it, it's just so damn good. Intense and emotional, Persepolis casts a spotlight, via the brutally personal experiences of its narrator, on a culture that's generally misunderstood in the West. No, it doesn't look like Ratatouille or Happy Feet, and, no, there are no giant ogres or talking donkeys, but the old-school animation is stark and beautiful, assisting—rather than distracting from—Satrapi's story of learning about life from the inside of a wobbly, mutating Islamic regime.
The film works in many ways, not the least of which is its explanation of what actually went down in Tehran in 1979, when students and Islamic extremists overthrew the sitting Shah, taking American hostages, installing the Ayatollah Khomeini as its leader and eventually morphing from a fairly Westernized nation into the regime it is today. But the movie spells it out in a natural, organic manner, showing events through the eyes of Satrapi, who was but a child when the protests against the Shah began.
Early on, she parrots things at home that her teacher has told her, so her father sits her down and explains exactly how the Shah rose to power and why he isn't such a good guy. In fact, that's how much of Iran's history is explained in the film, through stories told to young Marjane by older relatives. And that's what makes Persepolis so tragic. This is an educated, middle-class family that had great hopes for its post-dictatorship country; they're exactly the sorts of people who were often targeted once the fundamentalists were in charge. Satrapi's relationship with her uncle, for instance, who was released from prison in the early days of the revolution, is a crystal-clear example of how things in Iran went from bad to worse and led to the eight-year war against Iraq, which devastated the nation and a generation of young people.
And yet, Persepolis isn't really a film about Iran. It's a film about a young girl who happens to be Iranian and what coming of age in that nation at that time was all about. Satrapi's stories are funny and sad, just like any teenager's, except that while I would have just gone to the local Tower Records at that age to pick up a copy of Iron Maiden's Killers, Satrapi is forced to risk arrest by buying a bootlegged copy from some weird guy in a park. Eventually, her family ships her to a boarding school in France, getting her out from under the government's watchful eye.
At this stage, Iran is pretty much a totalitarian state, and families like hers risk falling victim to various purges or transgressions of Shariah law. So getting the hell out of Dodge sounds like a pretty good move, right? But that's the thing—suddenly Satrapi is forced to redefine herself as a teenager in an entirely different society, one where she doesn't speak the language or understand the culture, where everyone around her takes for granted things that could have gotten her or her family arrested back home. She doesn't fit in in France or Iran, and she feels like a woman without a country. But what's so intriguing is that, even though she's from a dangerous, alien part of the Middle East, Satrapi isn't all that different from most teenagers, except that her life experiences make it much harder for her to transition to adulthood.
Look, there's much to be concerned about when it comes to Islamic regimes controlled by fundamentalists, but our own ignorance of those peoples and cultures is part of the problem. Persepolis is a film that gives names and animated faces to many people we've been taught to fear—some rightly—for the last 30 years. How surprising that it takes a French cartoon to put all that into perspective.
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