By Kathy Rowland
Persepolis is based on the best-selling graphic novel of the same name by Marjane Satrapi. Directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, featuring the voices of Danielle Darrieux and Cathering Deneuve, it won the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, along with a clutch of other international awards and nomination.
Like the book, the film is both a charming memoir of an Iranian woman, Marjane, and a chilling tale of national disintegration. Set just before the fall of the Shah of Iran, much of the film recounts Marjane’s childhood in Tehran, her teenage years in Austria and her return to Iran soon after.
However, in our first encounter with the central character, she is already an adult, a woman with a look of utter despondence on her face, encased in a French airport. That image remains. The voice of that older woman fills our heads, even as we are introduced, and subsequently charmed by the precocious Bruce Lee-loving child.
Raised in a family of aristocratic intellectuals and revolutionaries, Marjane’s life becomes the roadmap that leads us in our journey into Western culpability in the tragedy of Iran, the revolution which toppled the autocratic Shah, and the nation’s subsequent descent into Islamic fundamentalist.
The story it unfolds however is filled with nuances and complexities that belie the reductive shorthand of the phrase “Iranian Revolution”. It is first and foremost, a film about failure — the failure of autocratic regimes to fully control individuals.
Make no mistake that Marjane, her family, her friends, all pay a steep price -- some with their lives, others with their freedom, still others with their sense of belonging — and none truly escape the impact of the regime. Her Uncle Anoush, a communist and intellectual, is briefly released from the Shah’s jail after the revolution, but soon finds himself jailed again by his fellow revolutionaries. The scene between Marjane and him — before his execution — is the first of many lump-in-the-throat moments.
Nonetheless, the lives of Marjane, her grandmother, the salty moral centre of the film and her sophisticated parents, make clear that even in the most repressive of regimes, spaces are found, minds expanded, rebellion stirred.
The film, however, avoids falling into the trap of uplifting, based-on-a-true-story films which usually amount to little more than David and Goliath, badly rehashed.
Amongst my favourite scenes were those where freedom and safety are wilfully disregarded in the pursuit of the more frivolous things in life. Street vendors, visually indistinguishable from the State’s moral police, surreptitiously hawk Michael Jackson fan buttons and Iron Maiden cassettes; Marjane insistence on sporting red flags for ‘western immorality’, a punk jacket, worn just so, and the right sneakers; her father’s “Shit!” upon learning that all the wine in the house had been flushed down the toilet, in order to avoid a police raid.
Like the novel, the film’s operative emotion is a dry sense of humour, achieved through a sly combination the young Marjane’s wide-eyed wonder and the more canny, ironic voice of the adult narrator. A graphic novel is, clearly, more amenable to transition into film. Its dependency on image and the panel structure is virtually a ready-made storyboard. One does not sense the compromises made (not always a negative), as acutely as one usually does when watching a film of a book enjoyed in advance.
In Persepolis, the animation is hand-drawn, and largely shot in monochrome. The old fashioned, naïve art look of the film imbues it a whimsical, otherworldly quality, even more so than the same visual style does in book form. Without the benefits of CG (the characters’ hair, when its not shrouded under veils, look nothing like Mrs Incredible’ fine locks) the film is dependent on various visual devices to keep the motion dynamic.
Colour is used, with restraint, to signal present-day Marjane. When the narrative moves back into her past, the world turns to black and white, and every shade in between. It’s a remarkably versatile, and rich pallet, aided by the imaginative use of various genres. As Marjane’s beloved uncle, Anoush gives her the real history of the Shah and his Machiavellian rise to power, the action moves to a Punch and Judy style stage, as the narrative unfolds in the form of a puppet theatre show. The point of one dimensional, easily manipulated characters, falling into line is certainly not lost on the audience. Stylistic references to Persian miniature paintings, of enclosed gardens, birds and clouds are used judiciously so as to never falter into exotic tokenism.
The dense black and white silhouettes of demonstrators during the early days of the revolution reappear again later in the film, transformed into the very antithesis of the revolutionary ideal — shapeless black garments forced upon women in the name of religion. In Marjane’s first encounter with a dead body — a hand of a neighbour buried under the rubble of an apartment block — her anguished young face morphs almost imperceptibly into Munch’s Scream even as it rapidly fades from the scene. One nanosecond longer and the appearance of this much over-used icon would have been jarring. The brevity of the image left one with a lingering echo rather than a staccato shout-out.
Watching the film one day after the announcement of elections in Malaysia, it was inevitable that certain things about Marjane’s Iran struck me. An professor teaching an art history class uses a visual of Botticelli’s “Venus Rising” which has been blackened out by the censors’ marker. The Guardians of the Revolution, thugs in uniform, arrest couples for holding hands. The manufacturing of enemies, within and without the country, in order to secure political power.
There is a scene soon after the fall of the Shah, as the country prepares for elections. Uncle Anoush, is hopeful that Iranians will vote wisely, convinced that the people will fight for their freedom. We know how 99% of his countrymen voted, and its impact on his life, and that of his country.
First Published: 14.02.2008 on Kakiseni