Marjane Satrapi‘s 2007 animated film ‘Persepolis’ is a moving, perceptive and funny coming-of-age tale about growing up in Tehran during the Islamic Revolution.
The French-Iranian film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival and it was very successful both commercially as well as critically, winning several recognitions from the Cannes Special Jury Prize to the César Awards for Best First film, culminating with the Academy Award Nomination for Best Animated feature in 2008 (unfortunately lost to Ratatouille).
Collaborating with her Paris studio-partner, fellow cartoonist and video artist Vincent Paronnaud and a stellar French cast, Satrapi has successfully transferred her drawings and story to a 95-minute black-and-white animated film.
The director makes it clear that her intention was not to make a political film but rather a personal and intimate account of her complicated relationship with her home and history. What has made her proud is the story’s universal appeal, she stresses that it’s not just about Iran, it’s about growing up in any place with problems.
Nevertheless, Persepolis has been obviously dismissed by the Iranian authorities as Islamophobic and was banned due to the movie’s critical attitude towards the Islamic Republic. Satrapi has not been back to Iran since 2000 before the release of the first instalment of the graphic novel upon which the movie is based. If she were to return, Satrapi stated she is not sure what might happen to her.
The film opens in colour with Marjane looking back on her life from a French airport as she prepares to embark on a journey home. It then unfolds in an extended black-and-white flashback beginning in 1978 just when the Shah is about to be overthrown.
Marjane is a precocious and outspoken nine-year-old girl living in Tehran with her parents and an adoring grandmother. The Satrapi family are middle-class, left-wing intellectuals whose friends and relatives have been jailed, tortured and executed for their opposition to the Shah’s regime. Therefore, they see the Revolution as cause for celebration, assuming that the end of a hated dictatorship will lead to a more just and open society. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with revolutions, the new regime, in this case, the fundamentalist Islamic Republic led by the Ayatollah Khomeini, turned out to be even more cruel, dictatorial and repressive than its predecessor. Imprisonment, torture, execution and ever-stricter code of conducts are meted out and enforced by the mullahs, accompanied by something new, the subordination of women.
Suddenly, Marjane’s world radically changes, Western culture is condemned, she must wear heavy robes, cover her hair and enter school by different doors than the boys do. The rebellious girl protests as best she can, wearing a punk-influenced jacket, buying bootlegged recordings of everything from Michael Jackson to Iron Maiden and answering back to the teachers.
The social order becomes even more repressive when war breaks out with Iraq, a bloody conflict that would last for eight years. As life gets worse with air raids, desperate food shortages and increasing repression, at 14, Marjane’s parents, fearing for her safety, send her to school in Vienna. At first the freedom she finds there is liberating: she experiences the typical teenage problems of social awkwardness, loneliness and starts going out with boys. She also falls in with a group of radical misfits who experiment with nihilism, Marxism, hair dye, and punk. While Satrapi initially finds a home with these rebels and new wave kids, she soon discovers their privilege has made them pretentious, self-righteous, entitled, and spoiled. No matter how hard she tries, she never fully manages to adapt and she is constantly seen as the outsider. Marjane struggles to observe the words her father said as he wished her farewell: “Never forget who you are or where you’re from.” For a while, she even pretends to be French to escape being regarded as a representative of the very culture she has fled.
After a devastating heartbreak, Marjane falls into a deep depression that almost kills her. Reaching rock bottom, she returns home where she finds the place utterly changed and far less inviting. The theocratic police state has grown so oppressive that men and women can no longer be seen together outdoors. Her beloved country has become a place severely deprived of alcohol, dancing, music, sex, in short, the pleasure of being alive. She attempts to fit in under the new regime, she enters art school and marries a man she doesn’t love. But eventually she comes to realise that while she is deeply Iranian, she cannot live there anymore. She feels like a stranger in her own country. At age 24, she makes the heartbreaking, final decision to leave Iran for good, exchanging her home, family, and history for a chance to become who she wants to be.
The extraordinary thing about Persepolis is that while it tells a tragic tale of alienation, persecution, frustration and exile, it never gets sentimental nor preachy. On the contrary, it manages to remain comical without trivialising its subject, interweaving clever, caustic humour with a warm humanity and a deep sense of life’s absurdity. There are plenty of hilarious moments, for instance, when Marjane, looks back on her disappointment in love and sees her ex-boyfriend as a depraved freak or when she sings the “Eye Of The Tiger” in heavily accented English and totally out of key.
All the characters are well thought through, multi-faceted and realistic. It is admirable that Marjane refuses to paint herself as a martyr, instead she tells her story with wistfulness, humour, and self-mockery, depicting her character as both a girl and woman capable of making impulsive, stupid and even wicked choices, as when she falsely accuses a man of sexual misconduct.
Her family is always a source of comfort and support during Marjane’s personal odyssey, helping her overcome her identity crisis and to decide where she truly belongs. Her mother encourages her to “become independent, educated, cultured,” and to value the importance of female education in such a misogynistic society. But the wise and cool grandmother is by far the most memorable and charismatic of the side characters. This pipe-smoking, sharp-tongued old lady is not shy to speak her mind in the earthiest of ways and acts as Marjane’s moral compass throughout the film teaching her always to retain her integrity and never embrace victimhood. ‘You always have a choice,’ she says.
The subtlety of the interplay among the three generations of women is extraordinary, a shining tribute to an indomitable female spirit perfectly captured by the exceptional cast giving voice to the characters. Chiara Mastroianni is the voice for the adolescent and young adult Marjane; Chiara’s real-life mother Catherine Deneuve does Marjane’s mother and veteran French star Danielle Darrieux is the voice of Marjane’s feisty, outspoken, and totally irreverent grandmother.
The film has been criticized for its simplistic portrayal of the post-1979 historical events. Some have argued that Marjane gives a narrow and stereotypical image of Iran with no shade of grey between this dichotomy of evil state versus wonderful people she puts forward.
Moreover they question the fact that in the film the Satrapi family passes on as a typical Iranian family when in fact with their leftist secular leanings, their wealth and western way of life, can only represent a tiny fraction of the entire Iranian population.
Another controversial issue pointed out by critics is the superficial way in which Satrapi deals with the eight-year bloody defense by Iran against the Western and Arab backed Iraqi invasion of 1980, (right after the Iranian revolution) basically reducing it to a pointless mass suicide mission of young Iranian boys who were fooled by their rulers’ use of plastic keys to heaven. For some reason the part in the comic book about the western-backed use of chemical weapons by Iraq against Iranian soldiers was not included in the film.
Some of the criticism by the commentators sticks, the viewpoint of the historical facts has its limitations, however, what they fail to see is the intimate and avowedly subjective nature of the film. As the author herself said, this is not and was never meant to be a political commentary or a historical film. This is an autobiographical tragi-comic Bildungsroman which is inherently biased and naive because it portrays events as seen through the eyes of the young author. It is by no means an objective view of Iran’s history and the West’s involvement. This is, above all, a story of an individual, a young girl growing up in the midst of political and religious turmoil trying to find her place in a world that constantly treats her as the outsider. An individual story transfigured by personal memories and strong personal opinions that somehow thanks to the emotional directedness of the narration, becomes universally relatable. Paradoxically, the more personal the movie gets, the more powerful it is. The few political and historical scenes are far less penetrating than the depiction of the impact of the repression on the characters’ lives.
The strength of Persepolis lies in the smaller private anecdotes it recounts, the intimate moments that confer a nostalgic, poetic tone to the story. One of the most touching moments in the film is the memory of the scented jasmine flowers that Marjane’s grandmother always tucks inside her bra. In the movie’s opening and closing shots, the petals flutter across the black screen like snowflakes. At once graphically bold and delicately nostalgic, the image is the perfect metaphor for the movie itself.
Persepolis is a hymn to the lasting, defining influence of family. In an interview Satrapi said this is first and foremost a film about the love for her family. However, it is evident that it carries an equally passionate political statement, one that forces Western audiences to get a different view of Iranians other than the abstract notions of “Islamic fundamentalists” or “terrorists” so often backed by the media.
In another interview the author states she believes that “an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists”.
The title itself, Persepolis, the Persian capital founded in the 6th century BC by Darius I, later destroyed by Alexander the Great, is a reminder that there’s an old and grand civilization carrying on through millennia, that is much deeper and more complex than the current-day view of Iran as a monoculture of fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism.