Pop culture and Iran’s Islamic Revolution intersect in coming-of-age film
Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis got an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Film, and it has won a dozen other awards, including two Cesars (the French equivalent of the Oscar). In a year that did not also include a Ratatouille, it might have won that Oscar as well.
Based on Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novels, the film is a French production, but Satrapi, who writes in French, is Iranian by birth and her story is crucially and dramatically intertwined with the tumultuous history of Iran in the 20th century. Persepolis is a coming-of-age story with a starkly topical history lesson running through it, and yet it’s even better—and more richly engaging—than that provocative combination might suggest.
A key element is Satrapi’s on-again, off-again alienation and exile from her homeland society. An only child whose parents are liberal intellectuals with distinctly modern attitudes, she is aggressive and ambitious as a grade-schooler in the period when the Shah was overthrown. Educated in French schools in Tehran, she moves to Vienna—at her parents’ behest—in her teen years, which coincide with the rise of the mullahs and the ayatollah. In the ‘90s, she returns to Iran, attends university, gets married and eventually exits into her present exile in France.
The filmed story proceeds through a series of flashbacks, with astute, provocative narration by the adult Marjane (voice by Chiara Mastroianni). There are a number of striking secondary characters, too: her remarkable parents, a martyred activist uncle, assorted friends and rivals from childhood and adolescence, with her wise and spirited grandmother (voice by Danielle Darrieux) being especially memorable and significant. And the wide-ranging phases of Marjane’s rebellion—childhood/'70s/Iran, teen years/'80s/Europe, young adult/'90s/Iran—help generate a surprisingly complex and by no means uncritical self-portrait.
Satrapi is both Marji the student rebel with a penchant for punk rock and Marjane, a distinctively modern Iranian woman, growing through the liberal and independent traditions of her family. Marjane’s zig-zag path toward maturity is measured in part via a shifting backdrop of half-ironic pop-cultural references, from the Bee Gees and Abba to Iron Maiden to Rocky, Bruce Lee and Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger.” But the passing issues of political and cultural fashion gradually become secondary as Marjane absorbs more and more of the epigrammatic wisdom offered at crucial moments by her earthy, undeluded grandmother.
Satrapi and co-writer/director Vincent Paronnaud have brought all this into very lively cinematic form. The simply drawn black-and-white images of Satrapi’s graphic works are brought to brilliantly fluid life onscreen. There is a distinctly cinematic richness of the film’s mise en scène and to its rhythm and pace, and the rise and fall of dramatic emotion. And Olivier Bernet’s original score absorbs and transcends the pop-music highlights with a grave sort of brilliance.
The film is showing here in its original French-language version (with subtitles). It’s fitting that we’re seeing it that way (and not dubbed into English), especially in the fact of Satrapi telling an Iranian story in a European language is crucial to the complexly cross-cultural, international nature of her emerging identity. And besides, the voices of those French stars—Darrieux, Mastroianni and Deneuve—are also among the special gifts of this remarkable movie.