Movie Review: Persepolis

Written and Directed by
Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud
Sony Pictures Classics – opens Christmas Day

MARJANE SATRAPI AND VINCENT PARONNAUD HAVE HIT UPON an important truth of movie-making: almost any film can be improved by the inclusion of a Rocky-style training montage. The one two-thirds of the way through Persepolis even uses the song, “Eye of the Tiger.” This is by way of saying that even though Persepolis’ subject matter is serious stuff, Satrapi and Paronnaud approach it with a light touch, creating a film that is heartwarming and often very funny. Great performances and a gorgeous presentation also contribute in making this one of my favorite films of the year.

Persepolis is Satrapi’s autobiographical story of growing up in Iran, based on her graphic novel series of the same name. It takes a certain strength to make the cuts and changes necessary to adapt one’s own work into film, and must take even more when the the story is of one’s own life, but Satrapi proves to be up to the task. Published in America as two books of about 200 pages each, Persepolis is a dense read, with dozens of characters and covering at least 15 years. The film version moves at a brisk pace and manages to condense the story down to 90 minutes. The result is a slightly different, more streamlined story than the graphic novels tell, one more suited to the medium, though every bit as entertaining as––and in some ways even more moving than––the original.

Throughout the first half of the film, Persepolis does an excellent job of presenting a childlike understanding of the revolution and the eight-year war with Iraq, as young Marjane doesn’t entirely understand what is going on. At the same time, events happening both in the country and within Marjane’s family are kept very clear for the viewer. In a very effective sequence, Iran’s deteriorating situation is depicted through family members’ reactions to news coverage.

Marjane’s own reactions take the form of hilarious acts of rebellion. She may not yet understand all the political context, but she knows when to stand her ground, themes that continue into the second half, which features Marjane as an adult, trying to find a balance between living her life the way she wants to and not offending the revolutionary guard, with often frightening results. The veil is among the most serious points of contention between the government and the people, and is played both as a metaphor for the revolutionary guard’s oppression, especially of women, and for occasional humor value, as when Marjane attends art school and must draw models whose veils cover their entire bodies, making them look the same from every angle.

The film opens in color, at an airport where Marjane has just arrived. Then, as she sits down to smoke (knowing what a pro-smoking advocate Satrapi is, there’s an interesting emphasis on smoking throughout the movie, with flashbacks appearing in smoke and scenes beginning with close-ups of smoke) and thinks back to her past in Iran, it becomes black and white, like a reverse Wizard of Oz.

Most of the film is in black and white, taking Satrapi’s stark art style, cleaning it up just a bit for animation, and placing it against more fully rendered backgrounds that incorporate shades of gray. The effect is beautiful and unique, and a perfect approach for depicting so many black beards, head scarves and robes. When an entire classroom of children stand together in their head scarves, all we see are faces floating in empty black space. Satrapi’s high-contrast style is fully exploited, with many scenes making use of silhouettes and other very dynamic effects.

This is only the beginning of the film’s visual treats. Following Satrapi’s approach to the books, the art is meant to portray Marjane’s subjective experience of the events she witnesses. When her family explains historic events to her, the flashbacks appear as puppet shows. When she is in love, her boyfriend is beautiful and their car can fly; when she no longer likes him, he becomes ugly and disgusting. Marjane maintains a fantasy rapport with figures like God and Karl Marx and in one laugh-out-loud scene, the two meet.

Persepolis is also enlivened by its uniformly wonderful performances, which add a new layer of warmth and emotion to the original graphic novels. Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian beautifully balance compassion and sternness as Marjane’s mother and father. Danielle Darrieux, as Marjane’s grandmother, is the heart of the film, and plays her role with great sass and humor. And, of course, Chiara Mastroianni is perfect as Marjane (as is Gabrielle Lopes as Young Marjane), nailing the cynicism that her childhood has given her, but also the joy in living that breaks through under the right circumstances. Plus, she gives “Eye of the Tiger” great passion, if not a great voice.

With current events in this country and around the world, Persepolis is the kind of movie that a lot of people need to see, a reminder that a government’s actions don’t necessarily reflect the mood of its people, and of the life and passion that hides just under the surface in even the most authoritarian setting. It’s a joyful expression and a pleasure to watch. It’s important without feeling “important.”

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