A tragicomic childhood in Iran is revelatory in its universal appeal.
Think graphic-novel-to-film and you're likely to imagine explosions, steroid-sized superheroes and pneumatic damsels in distress. Deep relationships, honest emotions and political/historical relevance, not so much. So think again about "Persepolis," an ambitious yet personal animated film about growing up smart, spunky and female during the Iranian Islamic revolution. It's a work of literature in cartoon form.
Marjane, our narrator, gives us a child's-eye-view of history in all its complexity. She's the adored only child of sophisticated, secular Teheran professionals. As a preteen she's full of life and joy, copying her hero Bruce Lee's kung-fu moves and holding imaginary debates with God. In her fantasies the argumentative little girl usually leaves the deity tongue tied. Pampered, privileged and outspoken, she was coming of age in a time of turmoil.
The despotic Shah was about to fall, but his brand of tyranny would be replaced by harsh religious fundamentalism. Little by little, Marjane absorbed some confusing family history as well. Her grandfather was a prince and her uncle was a longtime political prisoner. Little wonder she's rebellious. For a while, Marjane's insubordinate streak is tolerated; wearing a punk jean jacket and sneakers with her black chador, trolling the streets for black market Iron Maiden cassettes and speaking out in history class feels like thrilling adventure. But as the Iran-Iraq war begins to take a serious toll on the country and personal freedoms are extinguished, her parents send her to study in Vienna.
In Austria Marjane becomes a young woman; a hilarious sequence shows her body expanding in a dozen ungainly directions like a female Popeye after gobbling a can of spinach. Creator Marjane Satrapi sees her unformed adolescent self with a humorous, skeptical eye. The girl who took her nation's collapse in stride falls to pieces over rotten love affairs. She finds herself as alienated among the West's young bohemians as she was under the Ayatollah's rule. With no oppressor to resist, she turns her anger inward, then comes to her senses, putting her life back on track with a workout montage scored to the can-do "Rocky" anthem "Eye of the Tiger."
True to life, the story proceeds in unruly shaggy-dog form. Its insights come not in the form of full-fledged revelations but gradually increasing understanding. We slowly comprehend Marjane at about the same rate she comes to figure out herself.
Satrapi, author-artist of the autobiographical "Persepolis" graphic novels, has overseen this screen adaptation with loving care, although she has trimmed some grim episodes that gave the books a darker hue. Directing jointly with Vincent Paronnaud, she has transferred the simple, stark look of her drawings faithfully to the screen. The identically cloaked women look like so many blackbirds, but their faces are individualized and expressive. As Marjane's sophistication grows, her black-and-white world begins showing shades of gray. When Iran descends into political chaos, the animation takes a disorienting turn.
More important, Satrapi has retained her tragicomic memoir's universal emotional appeal. Marjane's story is more tumultuous than most, but it's one most viewers will identify with. Chiara Mastroianni is wonderful as the voice of the teenage and adult Marjane; equally good are Catherine Deneuve as Marjane's mom and veteran actress Danielle Darrieux as her warm, wise grandmother. This French-speaking Iranian cartoon clan is one of the most relatable families I've seen onscreen in ages.
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186