At a moment in history where Iran, famously dubbed one-third of an "Axis of Evil" by Dubya, has again been making headlines as the next country with whom the Republicans wanna preemptively rumble (though the NIE's latest report on its lack of a nuclear weapons program throws this political gambit into a tailspin), Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical and surpassingly exquisite "Persepolis," co-written and directed with fellow comic book artist Vincent Paronnaud, is a corrective bomb of beauty launched lovingly into a terrified world. Based upon Satrapi's likewise superlative graphic novels and detailing her upbringing in Iran and eventual departure to (and return from) Austria amidst the Islamic Revolution, the personal-is-political telling deconstructs the absolute Otherness attributed to Iranians in an era scarred by boys who cry terrorist, even as the film rises to the status of coming-of-age classic.
Since the animated feature is rarely tasked to do other than provide an hour and a half of entertainment, Satrapi and Paronnaud's creation, as artfully cinematic and emotional as any live-action film, feels like a profound achievement. Necessarily condensed from the books--so elegantly that it sidesteps the clunkiness attendant in most faithful adaptations of cultish source material--the film opens with Marjane (Marji to friends and family) looking back from an in-color, expatriated present on a black-and-white past. The conceit suits the story's unfolding, as the dreamy realism of the handmade drawings mimics impressionistic memory and occasionally, fittingly, slips into sentimental reverie.
In the press notes, Satrapi aptly cites the influence of German expressionism and Italian neorealism on the film's visual design: Minimalist on the one hand (sparse interiors and bombed-out exteriors) and surrealistically ornate on the other (leaves on trees nearly take on lives of their own), the backdrops, gorgeously dimensional and playful, invoke as much life as do the characters running through them. "Persepolis" continuously enchants with this inventive style, as in its constant keyhole glances to isolate and heighten moments, or when Marji's father disabuses her of the notion that the Shah was chosen by God via an extended sequence which animates political figures as literal puppets or, then again, when Marji, at a punk show with affectedly nihilist friends from her new school in Vienna, dances to the quaking of the entire noise-rocked frame. Lovely, still moments find expression as well: The girl and her grandmother purchase some beans from a street vendor, and walk away, as the camera cuts to a long shot of the man warming his hands over the cart, snowflakes falling in the foreground.
At its core, "Persepolis" is simply the story of an amazing young girl--irrepressible, smart, funny, and defiant--forging an identity, and her equally impressive, intellectual family, composed of a doomed, doting uncle, saucy grandmother, and two impossibly supportive parents. Living in a harshly transitional time that sees their modern society devolve into one in which women must don veils in public, an unmarried couple can't walk down the street holding hands for fear of arrest, and music, alcohol, and playing cards are contraband, the Satrapi family navigates life in an increasingly repressive Iran. And in bringing attention not just to the atrocities of the Iran-Iraq war, which claims hundreds of thousands of lives, but also to the toxic dangers posed by internal reactionaries, the writer-directors make "Persepolis" nigh on perfect (save for one unfortunate sequence featuring a karaoke-d version of "Eye of the Tiger"). It's a timely film for the entire family.
[Kristi Mitsuda is a Reverse Shot staff writer.]