Sunday, January 13, 2008


By Elise Nakhnikian

Speaking truth to power is never easy, but when you live under a totalitarian regime, simply saying what you think in public can be a heroic act. The faithful film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis graphic novels contains several scenes of people speaking out in Iran despite the risk of beatings, torture, imprisonment or even death. Their courage is thrilling, but it’s only part of what makes this movie so exhilarating.

Persepolis is the story of a rebellious young woman who fights for her right to party. Okay, that’s not all she wants, but it’s an integral part of it. Because the first step to resisting political repression, Persepolis tells us, is being true to yourself.

In the spirit of Art Spiegelman’s mouse rather than Disney’s, Satrapi’s series is about growing up in Iran and looking for freedom – not always with success – in the West. Satrapi was a girl when her country jumped from the frying pan of the shah’s oppressive reign through the euphoria of a revolution and into the fire of rule by religious extremists. Her fictional alter ego, Marji, is a well-loved child with a rich inner life and no shortage of strong opinions. She’s proud of her Communist grandpa, who was imprisoned by the shah for his politics, but the real head of the household – and her main role model – is her straight-talking, irreverent grandma.

The film takes its graphic style from the novels, whose stylized black-and-white drawings focus on expressive faces and body language against minimalistic backgrounds. Simple but not simplistic, the drawings convey emotions – especially exaggerated ones like elation and terror – at least as effectively as live action. A soundtrack packed with ambient sounds also helps make the story feel real -- for the most part, that is.

Every so often, the filmmakers take advantage of the medium to take a side trip into pure fancy. There’s a very funny recurring bit with a slavering, disgusting dog at a house where Marji boards for a while, and an animated “clip” of Godzilla trashing Tokyo from a movie Marji watches with her grandmother is even more hokily scary than the original. And all we need to know that Marji has finally found a hospitable new homeland is theWizard of Oz-like color that suffuses the end of the movie, bathing the formerly black-and-white film in warm colors as her cab heads into Paris from the Orly airport.

Satrapi’s first trip to the West is not so successful. When the war with Iraq gives the ayatollahs an excuse to become more repressive, as Marji (Chiara Mastroianni) tells us in her voiceover, the bombs raining down are matched by a flood of talk about blood and martyrs, propagandizing teachers at school, and glowering cops patrolling the streets for signs of “Western decadence.”

At home, Marji gets her ya-yas out by rocking out in her room to the Bee Gees and Iron Maiden, but when her rebellion spills over into wearing punk rock slogans in public and talking back to her teachers, her terrified parents send her abroad for her own safety. There’s plenty to like in Vienna, but Satrapi finds that the city can also be a cold and unwelcoming place, where a young woman on her own can go into free fall without ever hitting a safety net.

Meanwhile, she’s going through the usual physical revolutions of the teen years, “a time of constantly renewed ugliness,” as she puts it. A very funny sequence shows her body mutating rapidly, first one part and then another growing out of proportion to the rest. Satrapi also has fun with her romances, showing Marji blissfully falling for men who seem dreamily perfect – and then reimagining their history in a much blacker tone after they’ve disappointed her.

Marji also tries to rewrite her relationship with Iran, heading back home and trying to stay out of trouble. We see enough of her free-thinking family and their rich social life to see why she’d feel Teheran’s pull so strongly, even though the city, she finds, has come to feel “like a cemetery” after years of war with Iraq and executions by the government. (That image presumably explains the title as well: A once-great cultural center of ancient Persia, Persepolis was sacked by Alexander the Great.)

No wonder she’s so depressed after she comes home. And thank goodness she recovers, reigniting her rebellious spark. The greatness of Persepolis lies in how much it means to see this teenager rock out in her room to The Eye of the Tiger. Marji’s in the house, and we’re all the better for it.

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