Movie review: "Persepolis" an original in black and white
December 27, 2007
“Persepolis” is a true original in the eclectic world of animation, one that’s full of fascinating contradictions.
It’s a colorful autobiography rendered in crisp black-and-white; it’s about Iran’s Islamic revolution, but it’s a comedy. You won’t see another film like this anytime soon, if ever, which is precisely why you should seek it out.
Marjane Satrapi adapted her own graphic novels (with the help of best friend and fellow comic book artist Vincent Paronnaud, who co-wrote and co-directed) and she did it with great humor, honesty and heart. Except for a chunk of the midsection where “Persepolis” gets a bit draggy, especially after wowing us with its inventiveness early on, you’d never know you’re in the hands of a first-time filmmaker.
The animation style may seem overly simplistic at first, but on the contrary ” there’s so much going on, it’s impossible for the eye to take it all in at once. Clearly inspired by German expressionism, Satrapi and Paronnaud make especially stunning use of severe angles, silhouettes and shadows.
At the center of it all is Marjane (voiced as a child by Gabrielle Lopes, as a teenager and adult by Chiara Mastroianni), a precocious girl growing up in Tehran in the 1970s and ’80s. At age 9 she marches around chanting, “Down with the Shah!” though she doesn’t exactly know what that means. As she gets older, she moves to Vienna and then to Paris, seeking safety and peace but also searching for her identity.
Catherine Deneuve richly provides the voice of her mother (and is Mastroianni’s mother in real life, a nice touch) and Danielle Darrieux, who has played Deneuve’s mother on screen many times, is hilarious and heartbreaking as Marjane’s no-nonsense grandmother. These women help her make sense of the increasingly tumultuous situation surrounding her, along with Marjane’s father (Simon Abkarian) and her Uncle Anouche (Francois Jerosme), who’s punished for being a free thinker.
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Uncle Anouche is a hero to young Marjane, who’s impressionable but expresses a strong, unique voice of her own from the very beginning. As a girl, she worships Bruce Lee and goes with her grandmother to see Japanese monster movies but she also talks earnestly and inquisitively to God.
As a teenager, once all forms of fun and expression become forbidden, she debates the merits of ABBA and the Bee Gees with her girlfriends, then sneaks out in her veil to buy an Iron Maiden cassette on the black market. (Later, when she’s at her lowest point, she will force herself to undergo a reinvention to the tune of “Eye of the Tiger,” a warm parody of the obligatory movie montage.) “Persepolis” is relatable but never feels like it’s trying too hard to be hip in its pop-culture references.
Once Tehran becomes too dangerous, Marjane’s parents tearfully send her to Vienna for boarding school; there, she falls in with some rich, nihilistic punkers but never really feels like she belongs with them, either. This existential crisis plagues Marjane for the duration of “Persepolis”: she’s ashamed and confused about being Iranian in a foreign land, yet she doesn’t know who else to be.
But that state of being mixed-up is inherent to adolescence, regardless of cultural background. Marjane stumbles through bad romances, tries various drugs and runs out of money like so many of us do. Besides functioning as pure, inspiring entertainment, that’s probably the greatest gift “Persepolis” has to offer: its disarming universality.
“Persepolis,” a Sony Pictures Classics release, is in French with subtitles. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material including violent images, sexual references, language and brief drug content. Running time: 95 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.