Much ado has been made hereabouts regarding the capacity by which a film is judged against the written narrative it came from. I’ll both echo and maintain that the celluloid incarnation of the printed word is a different beast which can’t and shouldn’t be judged on the merits of its forbearer, but the matter becomes a bit more complicated with Persepolis. The adaptation by Marjane Satrapi of her universally loved graphic novels threatens to break down the distinction between book and film, not just because the same creator is at the helm (this isn’t uncommon), but because the visual style is completely identical, almost as if the comic were digitally scanned and then strung together with gap-filling panels. Static cartoon and mobile animation have never seemed so close. As a result, it became almost impossible to distinguish the two in my mind, making for detrimental comparisons where the film was concerned. Persepolis the movie felt like an unfortunate abridgement, a Greatest Hits version of the books with too much left unsaid to maintain the lasting power of Satrapi’s story.
I feel honor-bound to mention these misgivings, but otherwise the film is completely deserving of its critical high-marks, and I mourn my inability to view it independently. The animation style, as I’ve said, mimes the austere monochrome of the two graphic novels, and it’s a beautiful thing to behold. It’s refreshing to see a cartoon point backwards to artistic traditions like Art Nouveau and Expressionism, rather than forward to hollow computerized tinkering. Additionally, since these are creations direct from Satrapi’s page, their personal immediacy is striking; this really is how she viewed the world.
The story concerns the young Marjane, growing up under middle-class, progressive parents in the waning days of Pahlevi’s Iran. The Shah, an incompetent despot propped up by Westerners with oil in their eyes, powers an oppressive regime which carts many of Satrapi’s relatives off to torture and execution for intellectual dissent. And when the Revolution sweeps him away, those first days of freedom are intoxicating for their optimism, even when we know the Veil is coming. Nonetheless, the arrival of fundamentalist Islam into the Satrapi family’s life is heartrending, especially for the young Marjane, a passionate, spirited, independent, and utterly charming young girl who promptly rebels against her righteous overseers with bedazzled jean-jackets and Iron Maiden.
Due to the hardships of life under the new regime and, later, Saddam’s American-backed war against Iran, Marjane’s parents ship her off to a French school in Vienna. The freedom she finds in this new life is tempered by a profound isolation from the spoiled youths around her, innocent naïfs who have never had their rights taken from them. To complicate matters, Marjane is thrown full-steam into puberty and adolescence with no real confidant to guide her. Her first forays into love and sex deepen the identity crisis that began with the repression in her own country, where she returns after a particularly painful episode.
Satrapi’s character, voiced finely in French by Chiara Mastroianni, never shies away from showing us her mistakes as well as her triumphs. She’s fervently echoed in this work and many others that the personal is political, and Persepolis shows how right she is. It’s ultimately through her eyes, after all, that the absurdity of moral authoritarianism is shown. When two bearded goons, so intimidating with their uniforms and rifles and sheer insinuated violence, tell our heroine to stop running because “her behind makes obscene shapes,” she screams “Then stop looking at my ass!” And just for a moment these two thugs, formerly drunk with their righteousness, become a pair of bewildered little boys.
I wish that Persepolis had been longer, padded with the minor storylines and constant narration of Satrapi’s original work, and that more of the subplots had been fleshed out, but none of this should detract from the core elements of her narrative. Marjane’s personal journeys and conflicts of identity, though painful, are never without a unique sense of humor or beauty, and she becomes the perfect voice, torn as she is, of a country at odds with itself.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and hopes a similar treatment will be given to “Blankets.”
Persepolis / Phillip Stephens
Film Reviews | January 17, 2008 | Comments ()