As with Art Spiegelman’s gold-standard graphic novel Maus, to which it’s frequently and favorably compared, Iranian author Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed series Persepolis directly confronts the political via the personal. Recounting her early childhood, adolescence and young adulthood living in (and out of) Tehran in the years following Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 Iranian Revolution, Satrapi’s books—to borrow a phrase from Maus—bleed history, their raw confrontation of the monumental, tumultuous changes that swept the country during the ‘80s and ‘90s drenched in intimate, inflamed and often unpleasant memories and emotions. They’re stunning works of exposure, and thus it comes as little shock to discover that Satrapi’s cinematic version of her stories—co-directed by Vincent Paronnaud—radiates brutal honesty. A hand-drawn 2D triumph produced in France (where Satrapi now lives) by the country’s few remaining traditional animators, and shot primarily in black and white, Persepolis feels ripped straight from its creator’s heart, a sore, scathing, warts-and-all account of her formative years bolstered by its formidable aesthetic inventiveness, and elevated to the near-apex of its art form by its unguarded sincerity.
As befitting a filmic encapsulation of her novels, Satrapi’s tale is more or less evenly divided between two time periods: her innocent youth in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, during which she was a passive witness to history and participant in her own life, and the disillusioning maturation during the ‘80s and ‘90s, during which she assumed an active role in her process of self-definition even while being shuttled by liberal, protective mother (voiced by Catherine Deneuve) and father (Simon Abkarian) from her homeland to attend school in Vienna. This bifurcated structure lends itself quite easily to a straightforward coming-of-age story, and to a certain extent that’s what Persepolis is. An in-color framing narrative casts the action as a flashback recollected by Marjane (Gabrielle Lopes as a girl, and Chiara Mastroianni as a teenager and adult) in an airport. It’s an apt location for a film this deeply rooted in a sense of transition, whether it be with regard to Iran or Marjane herself, two entities intrinsically entwined even as they develop in polar opposite directions: the country degenerating from the Shah’s unpopular regime into an even greater Islamic tyranny, and the protagonist blossoming, painfully and with immense difficulty—as evidenced by a hilarious puberty-as-horrific-mutation sequence—from a small child into an independent woman.
Satrapi and Paronnaud’s animation is clean, unfussy and marked by fluid lines, and is so richly drawn and sharply edited that the filmmakers prove adept at capturing sentiments and atmosphere through purely visual means. With pop-up book tableaus composed of discrete spatial planes, the young Marjane’s round face and wide eyes reminiscent of Charles Schultz’s famous countenances, stylistic nods to German Expressionism (such as the abundance of poignant iris shots and transitional fades to black), and a soundtrack diverse with native Iranian music and heavy metal, Persepolis is a marvelously emotive work composed of multicultural influences. This diverse inspirational heritage befits Marjane, a girl whose predilection for immaturely reciting parental and classroom teacher-espoused beliefs soon gives way to fierce nonconformity. The ominous black mass of bodies chanting “Down with the Shah!” is a harbinger of doom, foreshadowing the individuality-obliterating black mass of veils that soon come to cover women’s heads. Marjane, however, remains always at a remove from this corrosive conformity, her worldview shaped by a grandmother (Danielle Darrieux) disgusted by the country’s turn toward cultural, state-sanctioned misogyny and oppression, and defined by her love for not only her family and native city, but also Iron Maiden (a CD purchased covertly on the street from black market merchants) and Bruce Lee and Godzilla movies.
East meets West in Marjane, and so too do noble and unsavory impulses—a logical state of affairs, and yet one that Satrapi candidly owns up to throughout Persepolis. Just as the horrors of the murderous, hypocritical revolution (none worse than the execution of her beloved uncle) coexist with, and are alleviated by, instances of humor (such as a woman secretly squashing grapes in a bathtub for the production of illegal wine), Satrapi’s self-portrait is also peppered with scenes of embarrassing, shameful behavior. Self-pity and self-glorification are absent throughout the film; in their place is an unsentimental admission that life is often difficult and people are often imperfect, and to weep over, or rail against, such facts is akin to vainly screaming at the heavens—something that, in one of Marjane’s imaginative childhood conversations with God, she furiously attempts. Marjane is separated from her parents, suffers through numerous disagreeable Vienna residences, falls in love and has her heart broken, eventually finds herself on the streets (and, as subtly hinted at, violently assaulted), and upon returning to Iran and the veil she vehemently despises, escapes thuggish police persecution by disgracefully framing an innocent stranger. Satrapi courts no sympathy for these and other disclosures, and in doing so powerfully endears us to her on-screen alter ego as a kindred flawed spirit.
Ultimately, Persepolis is concerned with the state of exile, a condition that, as evidenced by Marjane’s teenage stabs at trying to ingratiate herself into various social scenes (nihilistic punk, groovy disco, anarchic hippie), hopelessly frustrates identity formation. The feeling of belonging to many places at once and yet none at all is omnipresent, creating an undercurrent of miserable friction that, as the lonely conclusion implies, can never be completely resolved. That desire to fit in, to love and be loved, and to be a part of something, is the story’s universal core, whether it be conveyed via Marjane telling a man at a bar that she’s French, wearing the veil and marrying a lousy Iranian good-for-nothing, or—following a friend’s fatal attempt to leap to safety—accepting that “freedom always has a price” (as Grandma says) and taking a chance for true happiness. The sense that total contentment and inner peace is elusive may linger even as Satrapi ends her tale by repeating the happy memory of her grandmother talking about the wondrous-smelling jasmine flowers she stuffs into her bra each morning. Yet as confirmed by this gorgeous, accomplished, stirring work, she’s most certainly found her own distinct, defiant voice—or, to reference a particularly witty moment, her “Eye of the Tiger.”