'Persepolis' follows the life of a rebelious girl from Iran

Posted: Thursday, July 10, 2008

As a girl, she was as close to a non-person as a human being can be. Ignored, or threatened by religious fanatic teachers, spied on by neighbors, in 1984 she was living though "1984." The veil she and her peers must wear on pain of death "symbolizes freedom."

Courtesy Of 2.4.7 Films
Courtesy Of 2.4.7 Films

But Marjane Satrapi, Iranian teenager, wasn't buying that. She clung to her Adidas sneakers. She snickered at the propaganda that preached "Our martyrs' blood irrigates our land." And she made darned sure her Iron Maiden T-shirt didn't show under all those black clothes she had to wear, in public, growing up in Islamo-fascist Iran.

"Persepolis," the best animated film of 2007, expands the possibilities of animated storytelling. It's an adaptation of a French autobiographical comic book, a first-person account of one woman's life, from an uneasy childhood under the Shah of Iran to a repressed adolescence under the mullahs, followed by college rebellion and adult discrimination and re-connection with her roots in France. Animated by hand, often in glorious black and white, this French classic has the pathos, wit and intellectual sting of great political filmmaking.

And it's a cartoon.

Co-directed by Satrapi and Vincent Parannoud, "Persepolis" follows the girl Marjane as she recalls her 1970s childhood, her ambitions to become a prophet of Islam, her family's contempt for the Shah.

Then, just as her communist uncle promises, comes the revolution.

"It can't be worse than the Shah," her father reasons.

"Trust the people," her uncle answers back. That's before he is arrested and murdered by the Ayatollah's henchmen.

Satrapi takes us through her sullen, rebellious teens, her family's sacrifices to get her out of a country where her rights and her future were equally limited, a place where her rebel streak was going to get her killed. We go to Austria for her wild college years, falling in with punk nihilists, sampling all the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll that were so hard to come by in Iran.

"The family memory must live on," she is told. "Never forget who you are or where you're from."

Eventually, she doesn't.

"Persepolis," in French with English subtitles, tells Satrapi's story with great humor and humanity. It touches on all manner of issues, including why women whose families have fled Islamic countries would reach back to those cultures to find their (sometimes veiled) identity in defiance of the norm in their new land.

Perhaps all we have seen of Iran for decades on TV is chanting mobs of fanatics and crackpot leaders, religious and political. But the folks living in that world are the ones, like Marjane's mother (voiced by Catherine Deneuve) or grandmother, suffering, enduring, quietly and comically rebelling at what must seem like living in a cartoon.

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