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French feature length animated adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's acclaimed autobiographical graphic novel about growing up in Iran
In an era when the understanding - or lack of - between the West and the Middle East is dominated by warfare and news stories of violence, Marjane Satrapi's 'Persepolis' graphic novel is a breath of fresh air. The film draws very closely from her autobiographical book and enhances the visual style.
Although Satrapi's story inevitably includes elements of tragedy, as family members succumb to the brutality of changing political regimes in Iran, her character, Marjane is easy to relate to. When the teenage Marjane is in Austria, she pretends to be French, sick of people assuming all Iranians are "violent, blood-thirsty fanatics." Her story emphasises the message that they are not.
The story humanises Iranians and demonstrates how Marjane's experiences are similar to those of any other teenage girl. After the success of the books' translation into other languages, Satrapi told the 'New York Times', "Suddenly I said to myself, 'This is a universal story.' I want to show that all dictatorships, no matter if it's Chile, the Cultural Revolution in China or communist Poland, it's the same schematic. Here in the West we judge them because we are so used to democracy, believing that if we have something, it is because we deserve it, because we chose it. Political changes turn your life completely upside down, not because you are crazy but because you don't have any way out."
The film opens to Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni in the original French version), an adult in the early 1990s - a place portrayed on screen by flashes of colour. It then cuts back to Tehran in 1978 and tells the story of the childhood of little Marji (Gabrielle Lopes). She's a feisty girl, butting into the political conversations of her liberal parents, mother Tadji (Mastroianni's real mother, Catherine Deneuve) and father Ebi (Simon Abkarian).
There is a beautifully animated potted history of British dealings with the Shah's father (that is Reza Shah). "Just give us the oil and we'll take care of the rest," the cartoon Brit tells him. Persepolis tells the recent history of Iran with succinct eloquence.
Marji's parents have high hopes when their friends and relatives start to return from prison. Despite the grim stories ("Our torturers were trained by the CIA. They certainly knew their stuff"), they have faith. Then the Shah is kicked out in the 1979 Revolution. Uncle Anoush (Francois Jerosme), a communist, says, "Trust the people. They'll do all they can to keep their freedom now."
Instead they get a new, repressive regime and years of war with Iraq. Marji's childhood is now swathed in black, but despite the guardians and ardent dogma, the film manages to find humour. In class, while one girl is speechifying rhetorically - "the veil stands for liberty" - Marji and her friends surreptitiously show off their Bee Gees and Abba records. Later, as her music tastes develop, she scrawls PUNK IS NOT DED on the back of a shirt and haggles over Iron Maiden tapes in the black market.
In class again, when her teacher says there are no political prisoners under the new regime, Marji contradicts her saying there were 3,000 under the Shah, but 300,000 now. Many of them are executed, including one young communist woman Marji has met. (It's a particularly horrifying story. We learn: "It's illegal to kill a virgin, so the guard married her first. He took her virginity, then they killed her"). Marji is sent to Austria, where her coming-of-age is steeped in further confusion.
Back in Tehran in 1992, the war is over and there is some stability. After a bout of depression (solved by a heavenly chat with God and Marx), Marjane starts university, where there are further indications of the extent of the repression - in an art history class, Botticelli's 'Birth Of Venus' is mostly painted over in censorial black, while in life classes, the model is hidden in voluminous robes ("This is crazy. It's the same from every angle."). Persepolis highlights the absurdity, when Marjane, late for class, is reprimanded by a guardian for running. She is told, "Your bottom moves in an obscene way." She retorts: "Then don't look at my arse!"
Persepolis is a compelling story; and visually sumptuous, despite the mostly black-and-white palette and deceptively simple design. With a light touch, humour and horror are handled adeptly.
A moving, funny, personal yet universal tale of one woman's life growing up amid political turbulence, animated with concise artistry.
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