February 7, 2008

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Persepolis (PG-13)
A young Iranian girl tries to find her own identity while navigating her country’s new identity as a fundamentalist Islamic state in Persepolis, an animated French-language film based on the graphic novel-style memoirs by Marjane Satrapi.

The same style of black and white drawings that tell the story in Satrapi’s two books covering her early life fill the screen here. Little Marjane (Gabrielle Lopes) grew up in a Western-ish society in love with Bruce Lee movies and certain that she could talk with God. She heard the tales of relatives who had stood up to the repressive government of the Shah, including her Uncle Anouche (Francois Jerosme), and cheered along with her parents when the Shah was finally kicked out of office. Cheered at first. Then the even more repressive Islamic fundamentalist government came along; veils appeared on women’s heads (and the heads of girls like Marjane) and families fled the country. Satrapi’s family stayed, but Satrapi’s mom (Catherine Deneuve) feared the country her daughter would grow up in. As Marjane (Chiara Mastroianni) got older and more rebellious, the family decided to send her to Vienna for a Western education. In Vienna, Marjane found intellectual stimulation and love but also heartbreak and a sense of isolation. Returning to Iran, she found a country that was still recovering from a brutal war and trying to negotiate an oppressive code of behavior. She married a man too soon in part because it was the only way they could spend time together.

As with her books, Satrapi’s movie tells the story of a girl finding herself — her political voice, her talents, her personality, her inner strength — and demonstrates how much harder that is when a “Punk Is Not Dead” jacket can get you in trouble for anti-revolutionary activity. A condensed version of the books, the movie doesn’t quite capture the full complexity of her story but we do get the very personalized view of war and revolution. Surprisingly for a film that weighs in at a tidy 95 minutes, we get a well-developed search for someone’s intellectual place in the world. Marjane’s able to tie her own “who am I” search into her country’s identity crisis, never quite being able to reconcile the Iran her parents grew up in and that she experienced as a young child with the country it became during her pre-teen and teen years.

Marjane the character, wonderfully, is also a flawed person. She gets scared, makes stupid choices, gets depressed, gets careless and acts dishonorably. But she’s also brave, smart, plucky and, ultimately, not willing to become the deceitful person a repressive government could have made her. She stands up for her beliefs, for justice and for herself.

Persepolis is an excellent example of the kinds of stories animation can tell that live action can’t tell nearly as well. There may only be two dimensions but the black and white drawings give a very rich and complex view of one woman’s life. B+

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including violent images, sexual references, language and brief drug content. Written and directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi (based on Satrapi’s graphic novel), Persepolis is an hour and 35 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Sony Pictures.