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"Persepolis" Is a True Milestone in Animated Filmmaking

by on February 23, 2008

After a movie has garnered a certain amount of hype, watching it can be a bit of a challenge. There are very, very few movies that actually deserve all the hype that they get. The feedback from disappointed moviegoers can even end up creating a backlash that can overwhelm whatever merits the movie might have had.

The movie is told in flashback, with the adult Marjane scenes in vivid colorPersepolis is one of the very rare movies worthy of the hype it has received up to now. It is also one of the very rare movies that proves to be better than the source material it was adapted from. At the moment, there are really two kinds of animation fans in America: those who ask whether Persepolis should really win the Academy Award for Best Animated Film over Ratatouille, and those who have seen Persepolis.

I must admit that I appreciated Persepolis and its sequel more for what they stood for than for their own merits as comics. Marjane Satrapi’s autobiography of her life growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran is an undeniably wrenching and moving story that needs to be heard. The sequel, which chronicled her teenaged life adrift in Europe and her bittersweet return to Iran, was equally poignant in its criticisms of the West and her challenges in living up to her grandmother’s advice to, “Always keep your dignity and be true to yourself.” I also cannot deny that Satrapi’s distinctive voice was one of the harbingers that has led to a more mature graphic novel section in bookstores that stretched beyond the usual corporate icons in tights, capes, and masks. Her gender has made it more acceptable for women to create and read comics. However, despite its many comparisons to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, I always felt that Persepolis fell a bit short as a comic, and didn’t always fully capitalize on the medium’s strengths.

However, Persepolis as an animated movie is a nearly unqualified triumph. Satrapi and her collaborator, Vincent Paronnaud, have crafted a sharp and incredibly effective adaptation that manages to neatly turn the story from the graphic novel into a three-act movie quite nicely. In so doing, they have sliced away all the interesting but non-essential parts of the story, stripping it down to its core and giving it much more focus and drive. The first third of the movie corresponds more or less to the first graphic novel, with the young Marjane living through the overthrow of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, with its subsequent oppression and the Iran-Iraq War. The second third of the movie follows Satrapi as she finds herself adrift in Vienna, a stranger in a strange land where most people pre-judge her to be a terrorist while they babble about trivialities and live blissfully unaware of their own limited worldview. It is here that she hits bottom, ultimately winding up on the streets for a period, before she finally returns to Iran for the film’s third act. It is here that the movie loses focus slightly and begins to meander, but not enough to detract from the sharp realization that her time in the West has made her a stranger in her homeland as well.

Throughout the entire movie, Satrapi’s brutal and fearless honesty shines through. As in her graphic novels (and, for that matter, her interviews), Satrapi never shies away from calling out hypocrites and fools, and never excludes herself from her incisive gaze. There are many moments when her animated self acts in surprisingly negative ways, but the story’s bracing honesty only makes her growth and development as a person more satisfying by the end. While her tale is definitely one of a specific time and place, there are also universal themes to be mined from the movie about longing and belonging, the pains one must undergo to find oneself, and the necessity of being true to oneself. Especially in the last point, the movie is itself an expression of its own theme.

Idiots with power are the same everywhere. They just have different excuses.Persepolis is also a true milestone for animation: a serious, thoughtful autobiography that makes full and beautiful use of the medium to tell its story in ways that simply can’t be done in any other medium. I can think of nothing in animated cinema quite like it, with the closest, distant relatives being the films of Satoshi Kon. The simple linework of the original comics translates beautifully into animated form, giving the movie its distinctive look and tying it visually to the source material. In many cases, the movie will take a scene from the graphic novel and find creative ways to enhance it through animation. For example, one of the best-known scenes from the first book was the teenaged Satrapi’s encounter with the Guardians of the Revolution, who nearly arrest her for her “punk” shoes and Western clothing. These characters in their head-to-toe chadors become wonderfully fluid and elongated forms in animation that evoke menacing serpents, heightening the dramatic tension of the scene.

The movie also seems to exploit a much more sophisticated color palette than the graphic novels. While both are striking for their stark black-and-white images, the movie makes use of much more subtle shading and textures, effectively bringing out the gloom of the Iranian prisons or the ugly fog of war during the Iran-Iraq conflict. However, some of the movie’s most incredibly striking and beautiful scenes succeed because they fully exploit the art of animation. A quick sequence showing Satrapi’s awkward development during puberty is a masterful use of animation squash and stretch, while a dreamlike sequence depicting her experiences with anti-depressant drugs beautifully communicates her disorientation. Neither scene feels out of place in the animated environment of Persepolis, and both are far more effective than the original graphic novel versions of the same events.

The voice acting of the entire cast matches the beautiful animation. Chiara Mastroianni gives the teenaged and adult Marjane a sassy spark, providing a perfect voice for her direct, no-nonsense personality. Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian giving measured and sensitive performances as her parents. One character who loomed large in Satrapi’s life was her grandmother, who is wonderfully voiced by Danielle Darrieux. It’s worth pointing out that the casting of Deneuve and Darrieux, at least, is the rough equivalent to the celebrity stunt casting of the average DreamWorks animated film. Most of the cast is better known in France for roles in front of the camera, but they all seem to have adapted to voice acting beautifully.

OK, one other criticism -- Uncle 'Anoush' seems to be spelled differently between the comic, the movie press materials, and the subtitles.Perhaps the only real disappointment of Persepolis is my belief that its most important historical, political, and artistic lessons will be either ignored or willfully misunderstood by the people who need to learn those lessons the most. Extremists in the West and in Iran will be happy to cherry-pick Satrapi’s damning indictments of hypocrisy of the other side, without once acknowledging her criticisms of their own terrible behavior. I also have little hope that Persepolis will have any more success in disabusing the American audience of the notion that “cartoons are for kids” than The Simpsons or South Park have. Even if it does get a true nation-wide release, most American audiences will happily find ways to rationalize how Persepolis isn’t really a cartoon, especially when some comments from Satrapi herself can be interpreted in that manner. Also, the fact that a film like Persepolis needs to compete with the entertaining but ultimately lightweight Ratatouille for the Best Animated Feature Film Oscar seems completely unfair to both.

Still, those criticisms have little to do with the success of Persepolis as a film and as a work of animation. It is a success on nearly every level, and will ultimately take its rightful place in film history as a truly groundbreaking work of cinema.

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