Marjane Satrapi, lives with her parents (voiced by Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian) in Iran during the difficult times leading up to and from the removal of the Shah. Marjane frequently spends time with her grandmother (voiced by Danielle Darrieux) who bristles at the new restrictions placed on women. As Marjane (voiced by Chianni Mastrianni) grows up, she learns about new things, including rock music, and wears band t-shirts under her traditional dress, attends parties to make out with boys, and has remarkable luck staying one step ahead of the police. Eventually, things become so bad in Iran, and everyone realizes Marjane will never reach her full potential there, that she is sent to live in Vienna. Later, she returns, heartbroken, and can't handle the religious and political pressures placed on the young people of her generation. She eventually immigrates to France.
Strangely, what I have just described is the synopsis for the new animated film "Persepolis". This new film from France has been winning many awards and garnering a lot of attention. Even more strangely, Marjane Satrapi bases it on semi-autobiographical graphic novels. The idea alone is enough to garner the project attention, but the end result is very good, giving us a fascinating look at the life of one girl who grew up in a difficult time, in a difficult place, and chose a fairly unique way to tell her story.
Satrapi's drawing style is eye-catching. Seemingly very simplistic, she catches a lot of detail by showing the pattern on a dress, for example, to make the drawing seem more significant than a simple black and white line drawing. Throughout, she captures little details like this, allowing us to get a glimpse of what life was like in this tumultuous part of the countries history.
Satrapi and her co-director Vincent Paronnaud, have adapted the unique look of Satrapi's graphic novels to this film. I am glad the people backing this film gave her the freedom to retain her unique visual look, rather than try to use CGI or more realistic animation. In a way, this more simplistic style lends itself better to the tone and scope of the story. Yes, there are a lot of larger things happening around her, but the story is about Marjane and her family, and needs to remain fairly intimate. Because the filmmakers stick with the style originated by Marjane, probably be at home in a newspaper comic strip, the film seems to convey Marjane's plight in a more realistic way.
I have read Marjane has been very influenced by Italian Neorealism and German Expressionism and this is very evident in her drawing style. As Marjane hears stories of other family members, the drawings take on the appearance of woodcuts, moving in a stilted, jangled fashion. These moments also help to reinforce the romantic nature a child would give to these horrific events. Stories become fairy tales to young boys and girls, so Marjane is unable to realize the events being described are real or dangerous, and gives them a romantic, daring edge while they are scaring her. There is an old silent animated film called "The Adventures of Prince Achmed". In this film, the characters are all paper cuts and the animation is done by moving these figures every frame or so. This style is so closely related to fairy tales it is almost impossible to think of anything else when you see it.
The film is also largely composed in black and white, with brief moments of color at the beginning and end. These moments help to highlight the fact the bulk of the story is a remembrance, a dream of a time past. All of these choices are the right choices and help to make this story right, giving us a real feel for what Marjane experienced growing up in this environment.
As Marjane gets older, she becomes more rebellious and more daring. She buys bootleg copies of her favorite rock musicians, wears a Michael Jackson button underneath her traditional Muslim wear, and attends parties with boys. But all of these things are strictly forbidden and she and her friends have to be teenagers in a fairly clandestine environment, adding an element of danger to the evening.
As Marjane gets older, she also begins to question authority more, and lash out at the people in charge. These activities coincide with the growing unrest in their country, and the government's increased efforts on cracking down on these same activities. Her parents realize the country will only get worse before it gets better, so they arrange for Marjane to live in Vienna. With this newfound freedom, Marjane goes a little wild and finds it difficult to live with her host family.
She eventually returns to Iran, a more confident, headstrong, rebellious woman. As she grows, so does the crackdown imposed by the government and things are worse than ever. But life in Vienna also beat Marjane down a bit and she returns a bit defeated. She tries to live up to the ideals imposed by the government, and becomes depressed by having so many civil liberties taken away. A well-timed conversation with her grandmother leads her to take the next step and move to Paris, leaving her family behind.
"Persepolis" is almost instantly engaging; the style of animation and the portrayal of a young Marjane draw the viewer into this world. As Marjane grows, we learn about this country, it's struggles, and more importantly Marjane's struggles to live in such a place. And during the final moments of the film, "Persepolis" is a very moving film; the intimate story has really given us a feel for Marjane, her parents and her grandmother, and their struggles. As we watch Marjane leaves all of this behind, for a new life, it is very difficult to feel anything but moved.