Directors: Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I admit I have a lot of trouble writing about animated feature films. For me, art is an interior experience, a far more subjective exercise in viewing and absorbing than looking at a movie with real settings and live actors. Animation gives me complete access into the writer/illustrator’s vision—no famous faces and places mitigating that experience—and that fact puts another layer of contemplation into how I see these movies. I welcome the challenge, however, when the film provides me with a rich and honest canvas of images and emotions.
Persepolis, an animated film of the autobiographical graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi, is a truly extraordinary anime in the spirit of adult anime we have come to associate with the Japanese. Satrapi is an Iranian who has been living in self-imposed exile in France for some time. Persepolis was the ancient capital of Persia (now Iran) that was sacked by Alexander the Great in 331 BC and now lies in ruins. The film chronicles Marjane’s life in the current capital, Tehran, under the Western-backed Shah, through the Islamic revolution that deposed the Shah and on to the strict Islamist government that replaced it. The journey on which Satrapi takes us is both back in time through her life as told in voiceover flashback, and to the echoes of ancient Persepolis and its sad fate repeated again in the 20th century AD.
The film begins at an airport, where an adult Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) is asked for her passport and ticket. She looks dumbfounded at the ticketing agent, then adjusts her veil on her head and walks away. She sits and the full-color illustration turns black and white as Marjane reminisces about her life.
As a child, Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) is exuberant and outspoken. Her hero is Bruce Lee. So is her grandmother (voiced by Danielle Darrieux). Her parents (voiced by Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian) are against the Shah, who imprisoned Marjane’s Uncle Anouche (voiced by François Jerosme) for being a communist. When the Shah is overthrown in 1979, the Satrapis and most of the rest of the country rejoice, including Anouche, who has been freed from prison.
Unfortunately, the rise of Islamic fundamentalism brings a different kind of repression to the country. Not only are communists persecuted, but also anyone who challenges the authority of the mullahs and the fundamentalist Muslims who take over the instruments of government. When Marjane’s aunt applies for an emergency visa for her husband, who desperately needs open-heart surgery in Europe, she complains that her former window washer turned her away, saying only that if Allah wishes it, she will have her visa. Marjane’s uncle is buried three weeks later. Anouche, as a former communist, returns to prison and eventually is executed.
Marjane, still outspoken, takes risks to preserve her former way of life as best she can. She borrows money from her mother to buy Western music from black marketers who are standing along a street. As she walks among them, she hears whispers of “Michael Jackson,” “The Beatles,” and finally the one she wants, “Iron Maiden.” Marjane takes a jacket, paints “Punk Is Not Ded” on the back, and dons it over her chador. Two teachers accost her and warn her parents that all will not be well if they don’t bring their daughter into line.
Eventually, worried for Marji’s safety, her parents decide to send her to stay with a cousin in Vienna. After their tearful farewell at the airport, Marjane walks away; she turns back in time to see her mother collapse in her father’s arms and be carried away. Once in Vienna, Marjane is quickly sent from her cousin’s home and to a convent school. Her uneasy stay comes to an end when, after the nuns have used a racial slur against her, she says, “Is it true that all nuns are prostitutes first?” Marjane bounces from home to home and finally ends up in with an older woman and her dog Muki, the latter of which humps Marjane’s leg at every opportunity.
Confused and longing to fit in, Marjane takes up with a group of punks. Through them, she meets her first love, but finds him in bed with another woman one day. Depressed, she rejects him in her mind in a series of riotous fantasies of him covered with pimples, picking and eating his snot, and slavishly giving in to his mother. Marjane goes home and throws herself on her bed. When the old lady gives her a hard time, Marjane explodes. She insults the woman and her dog and leaves. She decides to return to Iran, but once there, she feels like an alien in her own land. She remains outspoken as ever at her university. In the end, Marjane leaves Iran for France, probably for good.
I had a leg up in understanding Marjane’s story because I had read the remarkable memoir of these very times, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, an educated woman and university professor who described poignantly the lot of women under the mullahs and the variety of choices they had to make depending on their level of devoutness and Westernization. None of the horrors Nafisi described are missing from Persepolis. Satrapi describes the waste of the 8-year war with Iraq, the bombed houses, the executions. A particularly affecting story has Marjane’s father try to secure a fake passport for Anouche; later, he and Marjane learn that the forger’s residence has been raided, his equipment trashed, and a woman he had been hiding arrested. We see the woman in silouette standing in front of a hangman’s noose, awaiting execution. The forger flees the country.
We also get a bit of a history lesson about the first and second shahs, whose deals with the West to modernize Iran included persecuting dissidents against democracy and Western influence. Although the repressions were often brutal, they also were contained; the imprisonments and executions increased 100-fold under the mullahs.
Perhaps surprisingly, the film is also quite lighthearted. We laugh when Marjane and her friend make fun of an ABBA album in class. When Marjane illustrates her growth spurt, with each part of her body suddenly ballooning and toppling her one way and another, it’s a true revolution in the depiction of puberty. The absurdist-humanist eye that started when Marjane doodled her first caricature is fully developed in the straightforward lines and painful memories she creates for Persepolis.
For Marjane, honesty is the most important value. She betrays that code to save her own skin at one point, bringing down the wrath of her grandmother. “Always be yourself, know yourself,” admonishes her grandmother, who says it’s the only way to endure the lousy facts of life. This sounds like good advice, but to a woman trying to make peace with living in another country that is somewhat hostile to Muslims, clinging steadfastly to her Iranian identity is no small feat. The shock of her ordeal stays with her, a rip in her heart over her lovely, lost land, hidden but never healed. She never wanted to be a citizen of the world and still seems to feels adrift, as this honest interview she gave to Bookslut in 2004 demonstrates. As long as Marjane continues to write and draw her simply wrought, honest graphic novels, we’re sure to learn how her grandmother’s advice plays out in the long run. Personally, I can’t wait to find out.