Persepolis was, per Wikipedia, “an ancient ceremonial capital of the second Iranian dynasty, the Achaemenid Empire.” Persepolis the movie never explains this, but the title is an easy symbol for the old glories of Iran, obsolete long before co-director Marjane Satrapi—author of the film’s source graphic novels—was born. Growing up in the late ’70s, young Marjane (Gabrielle Lopes Benites) idolizes Bruce Lee and lusts after Iron Maiden tapes; what it means to be Iranian, mainly, is to loathe the Shah’s regime as her parents do, without any conception of what might replace it. What comes next—revolution and theocracy—force Marjane’s parents to send her into exile, alone in Austria at age 14. Only abroad does any concept of nationalism come to her.
With graphic novels storming the multiplexes, it was only a matter of time before someone besides Dan Clowes brought them to the arthouse. But Persepolis doesn’t attempt the tricky task of bringing its distinct look to live-action: instead, it looks like the books in motion. Visually, it’s the most striking and sui generis piece of traditional animation since, say, The Triplets of Belleville, but its style doesn’t serve merely as an end. Instead, the melancholy shades of grey convey, unsubtly but effectively, the gloom and perpetual ambiguity of someone displaced both within and outside their country, living in a moment that feels historicized already.
Things start unpromisingly: Marjane’s child’s-eye view of the Revolution serves up still fresh history with pointless naïveté, emphasizing only the innocence that’s lost—a foregone conclusion. Once Marjane gets to Austria, things kick into high gear: ignoring home as much as possible, she meets rich brat kids who introduce her to “forced nihilism” and particularly scream-y variations on hardcore. She only understands what home means through its absence, and, to her credit, she never becomes a knee-jerk assimilationist in either direction; this isn’t The Namesake.
Instead, what we get is Marjane’s coming of age, and how interesting you find the movie will have nothing to do with the history in the background. A clean animation style eliminates all but the essentials, and what’s essential are the people swarming in and out of Marjane’s life—family, but maybe even more importantly, abortive boyfriends replaced (when she returns to Iran) by an indistinguishable swarm of bearded misogynists.
At her best—and hence, at the movie’s—Marjane becomes a focal point for contradictory cultural signals, a young woman trying to figure herself out in terms of the world. Mostly though, the upheaval that’s allegedly the film’s focus recedes into the background, and while anything is preferable to a Sweeping Epic Of Change And Turmoil, Persepolis is surprisingly modest and quick to fade from memory. It’s an unexceptional bildungsroman, distinguished only by the very time and place that are its ostensible raison d’être. What lingers aren’t the obligatory “powerful” shots of warfare and carnage, but Marjane’s disgust at a nose-picking boyfriend. Which may well be the point: revolutions fade into the history books, but teen angst never dies.