About three years ago I, along with many others, was gripped by the first volume of Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis”, a book which is usually referred to as a graphic novel (i.e., a literary comic book), though it’s really more of a graphic memoir, slightly-fictionalized, about her childhood in the late 70’s in Tehran, her teen years in the 80’s in Austria (where her parents sent her to escape the increasingly repressive Islamic revolution), and her young adulthood in the early 90’s when she returned to Iran before finally settling in Paris. Now comes this gripping, charming French animated version of Satrapi’s book, bringing to life its simple yet expressive drawings. Why tell this very personal story in animation? I think for the same reason she initially chose to do it as a comic book: because it _is_ such a personal story, drawings allow her a visual expressiveness that can capture not just what happened but how these events _felt_: for example, the scolding old women in their abayas look like snakes craning down on little Marjane.
“Persepolis” certainly puts things in perspective. I mean to say, during my student days I was a campaigner for free speech, focusing on freedom in music, but to see Western popular music sold black-market style by “psst!”-ing fellows in trench coats, while amusing, is also to see what repression really looks like. The teenage Satrapi thrills to punk rock and heavy metal; thrashing away in her room to Iron Maiden, she is exhilarated by loud, wild music in a way universal to modern adolescents, but the anti-authoritarian music is also a lifeline to freedom for her in a way quite particular to her context. Likewise, when near the end of the film Satrapi tells us, “freedom always requires sacrifices”, everyone can relate to what she means, but I also became suddenly and acutely aware that freedom cost her in a way that I daresay I’ll never be called on to know. For example, her beloved uncle, a communist, was executed for his politics.
What sticks with me most about the movie, though, is not its politics: it’s her relationship with her wise Grandma. I think of them wandering together through the cold streets ravaged by the war with Iraq, stopping to get hot beans in a cup from a vendor. Grandma, who put Jasmine flowers in her bra, who was always against whatever foolishness or outright evil was going on around them in society, whether it was the U.S.-backed Shah or the fundamentalist Islamics, but who also cautioned Marjane against harboring bitterness and revenge in her heart as being corrosive to the soul. She taught Satrapi that the most important quality in this world can be summed up in a word: integrity. That’s why it’s painful late in the film when Satrapi as a young woman betrays her grandmother’s teaching by getting an innocent man in trouble to save her own skin. And how cross her grandma is when she tells her!
If one of the reasons we go to the movies is in the hope that through their stories we can come to understand other people a bit better, then “Persepolis” is a valuable movie, and especially so at a time when W. makes sabre-rattling noises in Iran’s direction. Though it’s also important to understand that Marjane Satrapi represents just one strata of Iranian society, a liberal, highly-educated strata. She’s the very model of a modernist intellectual, a proper one: when she looks to the heavens in times of trouble she sees another bearded figure sitting at the shoulder of God: Karl Marx. (This odd couple seems to get on pretty well, though God looks a bit fed up.)
Key to ratings:
***** (essential viewing)
*** (worth a look)
- Feb 1, 2008