'Persepolis': A Stranger in Her Own Land

Film Deftly Animates Cultural Conflict in Iran

After spending the first 14 years of her life in Tehran, Marjane is sent to school in Vienna, where she encounters romantic and other challenges.
After spending the first 14 years of her life in Tehran, Marjane is sent to school in Vienna, where she encounters romantic and other challenges. (Above And Below: Sony Pictures Classics)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 25, 2008

To the world's ever-growing list of things it can't be much fun to be, add "Iranian secular liberal."

That's the bitter gist of "Persepolis," a memoir in an unusual format of one such person, who exiled herself to Paris, festering with memories and resentment of the fact that she was against the shah, too!

The unusual format in Marjane Satrapi's film is not that it's in black-and-white (though it is), not that it's based on a graphic novel (it is), but that it's animated. Satrapi, with co-director Vincent Paronnaud, has taken Satrapi's work and turned it into a vigorous, revealing and tragic film.

Satrapi grew up among the intelligentsia, in the city of Tehran. Her upbringing, religious differences aside, can't be that far from a young woman of the same age on the West Side of Manhattan, among ironists and intellectuals, among gossip, love affairs, scandalous (but highly entertaining) behavior. She bonded quickly enough to international youth culture, becoming a Bruce Lee fan by way of becoming a punk and then goth rock fan. Politically progressive -- she even had an uncle who was a communist -- she and her parents understood the tyranny of the shah (her well-born father worked for the government) and they ached in their hearts for revolution. It came. It ate them up.

"Persepolis" (the name is that of the ancient capital of the Persian Empire) is therefore a personal document, but also a political one; and it's an artistic one as well. Busy, busy, busy.

Satrapi's pencil is an exceedingly deft instrument. With simple strokes and not a lot of frills or fashion, it calls up a world, the cosmopolitan old world of the intellectual-academic-bureaucratic classes in Tehran, moneyed, sophisticated, educated, ironic, largely westernized. Though when she is a child, Satrapi's politics are infantile, what is remarkable is that she even has politics; but as politics are everywhere at that time and place, it is somewhat inescapable.

Her mother, more sophisticated (the voice is Catherine Deneuve's) and stable, is always cautious; meanwhile her grandmother (Danielle Darrieux) is probably the wild one, from whom Satrapi gets her sense of outrageousness. The film pretty much stays with these three women over the upheavals of recent Iranian history, including the revolution that overthrew the shah, the coming of the mullahs (they were for, then against) and the war with Iraq (they were for, then against).

It's one of those things where nothing happens but everything happens. Neighbor boys die in the killing fields of the war, the city undergoes nightly bombing attacks, but what Satrapi notices is that she has trouble getting Western bootleg tapes, because the theocracy is cracking down. She hated the shah, but these new "guardians" are even worse; the shah let the literati be the literati, but the mullahs want them on their knees six times a day. The shah imprisoned her radical uncle; the mullahs execute him. She hates the veil, now mandatory.

At 14, Satrapi's parents send her to school in Vienna. Though she has been educated in French schools in Tehran, she certainly doesn't feel happy in the West. Alone in Vienna, after growing up (a very funny sequence highlights the awkwardness of the changing adolescent form) she suffers romantic failures, loses her ability to cope and ends up homeless and near death. But returning to Tehran, now a young woman, she feels hopelessly westernized. She's an emblem of cultural confusion: She's from nowhere, and she's going nowhere.

With her effortless pen, Satrapi evoked that world and that pain; working with Paronnaud, she has managed to deftly transfer it to movement, without going off into the realm of CGI. This is good old cel animation, where things are simply drawn and immensely suggestive; the "guardians," in their black robes, bend in upon poor Marjane like giant, menacing parentheses, meaning to control and diminish her. They are jet black -- that stands for their absolutism -- in a world otherwise shades of gray. It's a terrifying image, and the movie, while no fun, faces hard truths and asks hard questions.

Persepolis (95 minutes, at Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row and the AMC Shirlington) is rated PG-13 for mature content including violent images, sexual references, profanity and brief drug content. In French, German and Farsi with English subtitles.

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