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It is a rare thing to have two animated features in one year as good as RATATOUILLE and PERSEPOLIS. For animation fans 2007 is a great year. Not since 1999, when THE IRON GIANT and TOY STORY 2 were released, have we been this blessed. Even more adult than Pixar’s ode to the culinary arts, PERSEPOLIS is a stark black & white portrait of a young girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution then turning into a tale of an immigrant who feels like an alien in a land that is not hers. But where do you call home when you return to the place of your birth to find something just as alien?
Based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel, Marjane was nine-years-old when the revolution to overthrow the Shah began. Her parents and grandmother were progressive. But soon the joy of the revolution is damped when fundamentalists take control, forcing women to wear veils and imprisoning thousands. Marjane is devastated when her favorite uncle Anouche (Francois Jerosme) is thrown in prison. As bombs fall on Tehran, Marjane secretly obtains Western music, make-up and clothes. Her outspoken nature scares her mother Tadji (Catherine Deneuve, BELLE DE JOUR) and father Ebi (Simon Abkarian, CASINO ROYALE), who decide to send her to live with relatives in Vienna. But life as a foreigner and a teenager will not be easy for Marjane either. In her 20s, she returns to Iran, but the changes only make her fall into a deep depression.
Though the film lays out the history of Iran, it never feels like a history lesson. The political developments in the country only define Marjane’s family and the ideals they instill in her. Each act stands on their own. The first act is about a child growing up in an increasingly more oppressive culture. The second act is about a teen struggling with the alienation of adolescence, which is only exemplified by being an immigrant. In the third act, a young woman returns home to try to regain a sense of who she is. This is all tied together with the spunk of Marjane’s personality and universal issues that all of us must deal with when growing up. When a teen in the U.S. listens to heavy metal to rebel it isn’t such a daring act. But when a young girl does so in a country where she could be imprisoned for it, she is truly brave.
Chiara Mastroianni (READY TO WEAR), who voices Marjane as a women and Gabrielle Lopes, who voice Marjane as a child, bring such life to the character. We inherently like her because she is filled with excitement, curiosity and wit. She is rebellious and outspoken, a dangerous combination in a strictly controlled society. When she contemplates all the faults of the boy who breaks her heart, there are no borders to her story. The commonalities in experience help us relate and the harsh differences make us sympathize with Marjane’s plight. How would you feel if you were not allowed to listen to the music you wanted; or you were arrested for holding hands in public; or lived in fear that the party you are attending will end in a raid?
With American politicians blankly labeling Iran as part of the Axis of Evil, this film is a powerful tool to show that simple-minded leaders here skew our perspective of a whole country’s people by solely representing them by the actions of its own simple-minded leaders. At one point Marjane is ashamed to admit she is Iranian for fear of being labeled a bloodthirsty savage. Her classy, levelheaded grandmother (Danielle Darrieux, THE YOUNG GIRLS OF ROCHEFORT) then comes to her mind and reminds her that losing your true identity leads to the loss of dignity. The same can be said when xenophobia blinds people from seeing the true identity of a group of people.
While the story is heartrending at times, the film is never morose. It’s filled with humor, heart and poignant satire. The unique look at the contemporary history of Iran is the first target of Satrapi’s sly drollness, but it’s most surprising when it finds new ways to skewer common coming of age issues. Her collaboration with Vincent Paronnaud has brought her voice to the screen in a powerful way. This story could have been adapted into a live-action film, but it would have lost so much style and poetry in the process. Additionally, the clean black & white graphic style makes the story even more universal, because it is literally colorblind. A perfect blend of content and style, PERSEPOLIS is a rare animated film that didn’t need to be animated, but is only the better because it was animated.