If you love foreign animated films like Studio Ghibli’s fare, Persepolis will be right up your alley. An adaptation of co-writer/director Marjane Satrapi’s biography, this hilarious, heartbreaking, and wonderful film tells the story of the young ‘Marji’ as she grows up during Iran’s Islamic Revolution and its aftermath.
Life is precious; embrace each moment
Marji is an adorably excitable little girl who overflows with energy, loves Bruce Lee, and wants to be a noble prophet someday. How will she make sure old people don’t suffer? By “forbidding” it, of course! This is Tehran, 1978, where women don’t have to wear veils, and friends can dance to music, at least when they’re not calling for the removal of the shah, Iran’s king.
Much of Persepolis is a frame story, told by an older and less idealistic version of its heroine, and viewers also receive a short history lesson about Iran’s politics and how other nations end up getting involved. Iran becomes a modernized country, but what few freedoms and civil rights her citizens enjoy largely go out the window. Eventually, soldiers with tanks and gas masks begin shooting and killing protesters, and the movie shows us a silhouette of a person bleeding out. His fellows use him as a rallying banner. Marjane’s parents narrowly escape the fighting, and she is sent to bed; eventually the shah’s statue is pulled down, his palace surrounded. These sequences and the film at large are presented in a beautifully unique style of animation that doesn’t quite look like any form of cartooning I’ve ever seen. Most of the movie lacks color but more than makes up for it with a vibrantly detailed black-and-white contrast.
Marjane is a complex little girl who one moment has to hear about an ex-prisoner’s torture and the next is playing silly if slightly morbid games with her friends. Having not even begun her adolescence, she has no comprehension of what a “communiss” is, why a number of them have been killed, and what is really going on in the world just outside her door. Yesterday’s domestic enemies have become the new heroes, Marji’s uncle Anoush boldly encourages her curiosity despite having just been released from prison, and elections are coming soon. Surely the people will defend their freedom no matter what.
Moments are short; fill them with meaning
Nearly the entire country votes for the Islamic party. Half of Iran is illiterate, and only nationalism and religion can unite her. One person has to flee danger alongside family members; another person visibly drowns himself in his bathtub. Yet another person’s sister is killed. Numerous events leave Iran’s army weak, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq takes the opportunity to strike. Using a foreign enemy as an excuse, Iran’s government begins abusing and killing its own people, and laws become much more oppressive in just a few years. Girls must now wear full veils and salute the fallen martyrs. Notably these characters each have different faces, which given the simple art style is really impressive.
It is now Tehran, 1982. The veil means freedom, women are told, and yet they must hide themselves from the eyes of men. People are dying over ideas like these. Several young students are sneaking in pieces of foreign cultures such as ABBA records. More powerfully, when one man is perversely rude toward Marjane’s mother, she stands her ground while this lack of freedom becomes the new norm. Stranger still, some old women–whose stark attire reminds me of the character No-Face from Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away–treat Marjane rudely and act as though their harsh yokes are long-held traditions. The world-building in Persepolis’ early stages is convincing and oppressive, especially with heartbreaking sights like a 14-year-old-child being tempted to fight and die in war for the sake of heavenly women; some of the “police” are hardly older. Another family gets arrested over, basically, playing cards and alcohol, and the nation’s “health care” prompts me to be thankful for my blessings.
Remnants of normalcy exist, such as people watching Godzilla, which looks amazing in this style of presentation. Persepolis’ moods are every bit as high-contrast as that style, and any given moment can be striking, such as when Marjane repeatedly deconstructs her teachers’ heavily idealized treatment of the new regime and its policies, or heartwarming, like when Satrapi is talking with her grandmother and receiving valuable advice for how to treat the less scrupulous people she will meet. Ultimately the time comes for Marji to leave Iran–in tears, despite her parents’ optimistic outlook–and this marks a big turning point in the development both of her own story and of the movie that tells it.
Life is meaningful; learn from every experience
Persepolis then narrows its scope and makes more of an effort to emphasize Marjane’s own personality and how it changes with each passing event. She winds up at a Catholic boarding house, not hugely superior to the lifestyle she had to leave. She then meets a bunch of smokers and punks, some of whom introduce her to ideas such as nonchalance and nihilism, along with unfamiliar kinds of music that prove quite an acquired taste. Through all of this, the movie’s general refusal to preach to the audience pays dividends, such as when Marji is delighted to simply gaze upon fully stocked grocery shelves, while some of her new acquaintances complain about “having” to spend Christmas with their families.
The heroine continues from home to home, in some cases due to returning one evil treatment for another and being kicked out, and while this doesn’t always make her look like a sympathetic character, the real-life Satrapi deserves a great deal of credit for not “whitewashing” her own life story. She’s stuck trying to assimilate to Western culture despite not really understanding it, so she studies a lot of philosophers and begins building her own maturity. Her puberty sequence is hilarious, with different body parts inflating to extremely exaggerated degrees, but she ends up being a really pretty young woman. Somewhat understandably, she hesitates to talk about her Iranian heritage because of the negative ways that too many people around her think of Iran in general and her people as behaving.
Many of Marjane’s most questionable behaviors pop up in her approach toward romance. Her relationships are very hit-or-miss, but from an artistic standpoint, some of those scenes make use of animation in incredible ways to do things that could never happen in real life or would look silly. Unfortunately, even though many of her breakups are not her fault, Marji doesn’t really seem to learn from her string of failed relationships, in terms of what actually makes these kinds of interactions stable and healthy.
In the bigger picture, the movie doesn’t completely forget the importance of its context, showcasing the immense tragedy of war as well as a commonplace lack of understanding for why the conflict started in the first place. Iran in the film is said to have had thousands of political prisoners, many of whom choose death instead of renouncing their ideas. Many streets and avenues are named for these martyrs, but for their families, street names are all they have left. A giant mural of a woman holding her war-dead son looks like Michelangelo’s Pietà.
Through all this, Persepolis finds opportunity to be happy and even humorous without making its dramatic reason for being feel trivial. “Eye of the Tiger” gets a cameo. Marji tears off leg hair. She does athletic dances. She draws a very lewd caricature of her art teacher, who’s showing off a censored version of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and mood changes only rarely feel abrupt or inappropriate. That being stated, it’s definitely understandable that some authors dislike the movie’s Marjane-centric change of focus. While the later aspects of her story can sometimes lose grip on their important context, Satrapi’s own narrative does remain interesting and is marvelously told throughout, regardless of the consistency of her motives or behavior.
The movie’s production values are usually incredible, boasting a wonderful soundtrack complemented by a truly distinctive art style that arguably rivals some full-color cartoons even in the midst of its own simplicity. If there is a low point, it’s the quality of the English dub–while passable, the voice acting isn’t great compared to the original French and is nowhere near Ghibli quality, even as some viewers may appreciate that the dub is sometimes less crude than the English subtitles. Some depictions of fierce profanity, sexual innuendo, and especially depressing violence (including a few brief mentions of rape, take note) feel a bit intense for the rating but not ridiculously so. Young girls might get more from this movie than might boys, due to frank and intimate discussions of topics including breast health. Still, viewers of both sexes can learn from Marjane’s pragmatic approach to tearing down arbitrary and sexist policies in the society around her.
One of the story’s most interesting thematic decisions is its treatment of God and religion. Cynical for most of the film, if sadly understandably so, this treatment changes without much explanation late in the story and seems forgotten about by the end minus some slight and unexpected comedy. The bigger problem is that the movie’s straightforward application of a “be true to yourself” message feels self-defeating in a story that includes villains. One scene accidentally deconstructs this by proving some arrogant individuals to have shallow and not ideological motivations, but this is otherwise a message the film doesn’t seem to know what to do with. Beyond this, Persepolis ends on a solemn but high note, having told behind it a rich story and leaving the audience with few answers about Iran yet not a lot of room for questions. The end product feels at times unique and familiar and is certainly a fine choice for viewers looking to be challenged by their entertainment.
Conclusion: Experiences are powerful; fill them with blessings
Little remains to be said about Persepolis. It is for the most part a wondrously crafted film with likable heroes, deplorable villains, memorable scenes, and perhaps every kind of human emotion from laughter to anguish and back. Marjane Satrapi’s story feels somewhat like an epic film told in reverse, but even as her fellow Iranians could have received more attention in this children’s-length but well paced film, Marji’s story never loses its impact and importance even in its silliest moments.
Freedom is a jewel to be cherished. It comes with a great and heavy price, and many that pave the way for it to be shared never get to experience it in this world. This story is not universally “about” feminism, extremism, government, economics, different cultures, or any of the other numerous themes that are brought up, but all of these aspects serve to show just how precious and fragile liberty really is.
Despite what you may have seen on the news, the Iran of Persepolis is not a country of nothing but tyranny and violence. Life goes on as it has and as it will, as much as it can, and many of these people continually show that one of the hardest things to take from someone is an idea. This is a movie full of ideas, some of which lie outside the story’s own grasp, and in the end, the story and its heroine-author give the audience an implicit mission–not merely to live, but to work so that others also can, and to value that life without worry of cost, so that all the world will know that it is precious.
Image sources (property of 2.4.7. Films, Sony Pictures Classics, and others)
– Movie poster – source
– Young revolutionary Marji – source
– Marjane and Grandma – source
– Bombed Tehran – source (some spoilers)
– Classic record – source
– Starlight romance – source
– Mural on wall – source
– Marjane standing tall – as Marjane and Grandma