Eugene Weekly : Movies : 1.31.08


Animated Questions
Persepolis’ rich, smart tale charms

PERSEPOLIS: Written and directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. Based on the graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi. Art director, Marc Jousset. Music, Olivier Bernet. With the voices of Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, Simon Abkarian, Gabrielle Lopes and François Jerosme. Sony Pictures Classics, 2007. PG-13. 95 minutes.

It was only a few years ago that Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis and Persepolis 2 were published in the U.S., where they earned endless praise from reviewers and were often compared to Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking Maus. The graphic novel memoir (a clunky phrase, but there’s none better) follows the story of Satrapi as she grows up in Iran through years of change, revolution and war, and later, as she becomes a young adult in Vienna. The books are engrossing, funny and, in a very distinct way, beautiful; Satrapi’s thick lines and clean panels, gorgeous patterns and precise facial expressions tell her story with richness and originality.

And now, Satrapi — with co-writer and director Vincent Paronnaud — is telling her story again. But Persepolis the movie, though in some ways almost inseperable from the books, is not redundant, not repetitive, even if, say, you’ve turned the last page of Persepolis 2 just moments before seeing the film. Satrapi and Paronnaud are keenly aware of the ways her art ties the two together, but they let the film take its own shape, contracting certain events, expanding others, leaving yet others out entirely — all while deepening the visual effect of the story with lush textures and images of broader scope than would have fit in the small panels on the printed page.

But there’s so much more to this story than just gorgeous imagery. Satrapi was born in Iran in 1969, and until her parents sent her to Vienna at the age of 14, she lived through tumultuous times: the overthrow of the Shah, the Islamic Revolution, war with Iraq. To many people in this country, these are pieces of history, distant and strange, but through the story of one young girl, Persepolis makes them vivid, real and thoroughly imaginable. Young Marjane (Gabrielle Lopes) is smart and certain of herself. She wants to grow up to be a prophet and has conversations with God in her bedroom at night; she believes things with deep conviction, even when she’s wrong. But her parents (Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian) and earthy, loving grandmother (Danielle Darrieux) aren’t shy about setting her feet back on the right path. Their friends and family, who tell stories of their imprisonment and torture as political prisoners under the Shah, impress upon Marjane the importance of integrity and freedom.

She takes those lessons to heart as she grows into a teen, learning how to be rebellious (which includes surreptitiously buying Iron Maiden tapes to rock out to), how to carefully sneak under the radar of the “social guardians,” how to hold fast to her own sense of the world. But between the fundamentalists and the war with Iraq, Iran isn’t a safe place to be, so Marjane is sent to a French school in Vienna.

Both in the books and in the film, the latter half of her story is slightly less engrossing even as it’s more universal; she struggles with her identity, caught between feeling like an Easterner and a Westerner, but she also struggles with friends, boys and a familiar problem wth authority. It’s the specificity of her childhood that gives the story so much power — and the deeply personal, wrenching reminder that, as Satrapi says, “an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists.” To a rational person, it’s an obvious statement, but it’s also obviously one that needs reiterating from time to time.

Persepolis is told as a reflection, as an adult Marjane sits in an airport, remembering her younger self’s life. It’s a framework that serves partially to slow down the narrative, which sometimes seems to barrel forward in an attempt to include as much as possible, and to show that some of young Marjane’s questions continue to plague her. As an adult in France, she wants to go home again, but she can’t live in fundamentalist-controlled Iran. It isn’t home, but nowhere else is, either. It’s an old sentiment, that one, but in Marjane Satrapi’s hands, eyes and heart, it’s entirely new.

Persepolis opens Friday, Feb. 1, at the Bijou.