The general trend of animation movies (in Hollywood), today, is to move towards a more realistic canvases that can paint an exquisitely detailed world in glowing shades pixellated magic. Another rule in Hollywood is to repeat the same thing that the viewers liked before. May be there is nothing new or everything is diluted and repackaged. But when a certain kind of movie arrives, there's an energizing breath of fresh air. Marjane Satrapi's memoir "Persepolis" (2007) (co-directed by Vincent Paronnaud) is an old-school black & white animation movie, which has an handcrafted charm, forgotten in the era of the CGI juggernauts.
"Persepolis" is a very sensitive, true-to-life graphic novel. With the help of French comic-book artist Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane has smartly streamlined the four autobiographical volumes into 92 minutes of screen time. The imagery makes a viewer to digest its hard subject matter and also be used as an case study of how the medium is good for more than just adolescent fantasies.
In 1978, the Islamic revolution shook Iran and Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi -- the last shah of Iran (also a pawn of the U.S.) -- was overthrown angry rebels. Facing execution, the Shah traveled from country to country and finally died in Egypt, (the country granted him permanent asylum) in 1980. Marjane was born to a liberal, optimistic family, who thought "it can't be worse than the shah." But, it not only got worse, it got horrible.
Marjane was 9, when the Shah was deposed. She was a boisterous mouthy child of a progressive Tehran family. She, along with her family, was anxiously watching over the shah's repressive government give way to the ayatollah's far worse fundamentalist revolution. As a child, she is full of energy and loves Bruce Lee. She is exhilarated at the fall of the shah and confused at the rise of the mullahs who demanded that females wear head scarves. Later, when she grows, she is often stiff and slumped, moving slowly as she crumples under the pressure to conform.
In the mid 80's, the now-adolescent Marjane was sent to Vienna. Until then, we see Marjane's personal history and the country's collapse, but once abroad, the focus turns inward. She is now victimized because of her nationality and starts trying subcultures in an attempt to re-establish her sense of self.
"Persepolis" is solid, when Marjane presents her child-self. Her innocent comments during the dire happenings, her exaltation in embracing the new ideas, and believing herself, briefly, to be a prophet appointed by God, are all the film's most appealing moments. The second act, in Austria offers a bleak viewpoint, where the adult things such as imprisonment, sexual awakenings and drugs comes into play. The third and final act takes place in the transformed, uncompromising Iran. She doesn't fit into that strictly watched society, yet she grows elegant and rediscovers the zest for life. The memoir isn't fully about the good deeds of Marjane. It occasionally shows the wilfulness and cruelty of the character -- she decides to torture a classmate whose father worked for the secret police.
Marjane's parents, grandmother, uncle Anouche are all adorable characters. It is painful at times, to watch them deal with life under the oppressive regime. They expected to become different people practically overnight and eventually forced to hide who they are. The film, mostly in black and white, generates a visual power in relating the personal and the political past. Paronnaud and Marjane Strapi has poetic eyes for detail: a conversation between God and Karl Marx; repressiveness of revolutionary Iran versus the nonconformist, tolerant democratic west. The directors said that they were inspired by German Expressionism era (during the 1920's), which is apparent in the movie's dynamic black blocky drawings. The animation recapitulates the book to such an extent that there is small variation between reading the book and watching the film.
"Persepolis" -- hilarious and at times tragic -- works as a universal coming-of-age story and as an accounting of feminist and revolutionary struggles. Marjane recites many lessons, particularly that "Freedom always has a price."