October 11, 2007

When I sat down to watch Persepolis, the opening film at the Ottawa International Animation Festival, I was already a fan of the comics it was based on—even though I'd never read them. A year ago Kino Kid introduced me to Marjane Satrapi's work via Poulet aux prunes (Chicken with Plums), another comic set in her native Iran, and it quietly blew me away with its lyrical storytelling. Like Charles M. Schulz's work, Satrapi's style is deceptive: It would be easy to look at its simplicity and starkness (like most of Schulz's work, her comics are in black and white, with no greys) and declare it childish or naïve. It would also be an injustice. With heavy-lidded eyes, wide-open mouths or rubber-hosey limbs, Satrapi's characters convey everything from gleeful, kinetic action to stark terror to heart-rending anguish—which is perfectly fitting for the autobiographical Persepolis.

The movie opens in Tehran, just a few years before the Iranian Revolution. Marjane's educated, progressive and politically aware parents are anticipating the fall of the Shah, and when the demonstrations start they're out on the streets protesting. In the middle of all this upheaval Marjane is starting to piece together her world view in that broad, semi-understanding, somewhat egocentric way that only a child can. As the situation becomes more dangerous (the protests turn violent), then hopeful (the Shah goes into exile, political prisoners are freed), then horribly awry (the rise of Islamic fundamentalism) she's forced to learn complicated, terrible lessons in a very short time.

One of the hardest lessons for Marjane to learn is to temper her smart mouth. A bright child raised by socially conscious parents, she had long been encouraged to question and to speak her mind—not an especially bad thing during the Shah's last days in power, but a dangerous trait in an increasingly restrictive society, and especially in one that devalues its women. When she's fourteen, her parents realize that Marjane can't thrive in Iran, so they send her to a French school in Vienna. It's there that Marjane suffers the trials and confusion of culture shock, racism and adolescence, sometimes separately, often all at once.

I ended up reading the first two collected Persepolis volumes after seeing the movie, and was struck by how w
ell they complement each other. Because of the way comics telescope time, there are some things that the movie compresses, and others it extends. In some cases, it's a mix of both: A scene in which the Guardians of the Revolution, Iran's militia and moral police, break up an illicit party is given more play in the movie, but Marjane's emotional aftermath is reduced to mere moments—and the result is that much more powerful.

The movie, which is co-written and co-directed by Satrapi (along with Vincent Paronnaud), is extremely faithful to her style; though it includes more grey tones to provide some texture, there are only slight concessions to the animated medium. (Again, a comparison to Schulz's Peanuts is apt here). Faithful, however, doesn't mean slavish: rather than using the comics as a literal storyboard, the movie uses them as springboard. As loose as the comics' style is, the movie takes advantage of animation's possibilities, especially with regards to the chadors and habits of the strictly religious Iranian women and nuns who have the misfortune to cross Marjane's path. Bodies bend, curve and coil; rarely to extreme, but often with a liveliness that's just a step above Satrapi's more contemplative comics. Several one- or two-panel elements (or even just speech balloons) from the comic get extended, sometimes hilarious play in the movie, including a whimsical take on the Shah's father's installation by the British, and the best rendition of "Eye of the Tiger" ever.

Persepolis is the cinematic sibling of other autobiographical films that encompass cultures and experiences that most in the West have heard or read of, but only really know superficially, like Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies; but it's also quite different. There's no singular, epic tragic moment as in Barefoot Gen, nor is there the shadow of death that hangs over Grave of the Fireflies. What we do have is several decades of a life, rather than a tiny sliver; and by observing the growth of that life, we're given a nuanced look at the culture and the people that shaped it. Satrapi's gaze is unflinching as she exposes everyone's good and bad sides; she not only reveals her own failings and hypocrisies, she exposes the good in people it would be easy to write off. When two militia members stop her family late one evening, she and her grandmother try to get to the apartment quickly so they can ditch her father's supply of alcohol. When the grandmother plays at being hypoglycemic for their excuse, one of the guardsmen softens for a moment and says, "Just like my mother. Go on."

This is Persepolis's magic. It presents a complex, layered, compassionate and often humorous look at the people of a country that has been presented only superficially to Westerners, most recently as a member of the "axis of evil" with a lunatic as a leader. It's a shame that the people who most need to see Persepolis likely won't, but in the meantime we can experience the joys and sadness of a life that is at once alien and familiar, in glorious black and white.

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