“Persepolis” – it’s a title that’s been whispered reverently from film geek to film geek, slowly gaining the kind of underground cache that virtually guarantees its eventual migration into the mainstream. Indeed, the critically acclaimed film has finally begun receiving the kind of recognition it deserves, garnering a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, the Jury Prize at Cannes and accolades everywhere from the IFC Independent Spirit Awards to the Golden Globes. And now, almost two months after its initial, limited U.S. release, the movie has finally made its way to Santa Barbara, finding a temporary home at the Fiesta Five Theater on State Street.
Adapted from the graphic novel of the same name by Iranian-born artist Marjane Satrapi, “Persepolis” tells the story of Satrapi’s experiences of growing up during the 1979 Iranian Revolution, surviving the subsequent war between Iran and Iraq and adapting to the increasingly fundamentalist regime that ultimately came to rule the region. Over the course of the film’s narrative, Satrapi spends some time at a French school in Austria, has her heart broken by her fair share of fellows and learns to come to terms with her identity as an artist, a woman and – most importantly – an Iranian.
In an interview she did with Pantheon Books, the division of Random House that published the original copies of Persepolis, Satrapi said she decided to write the novel as a means of conveying the many dimensions of the Iranian populace to the people of the world.
“From the time I came to France in 1994, I was always telling stories about life in Iran to my friends,” Satrapi said. “We’d see pieces about Iran on television, but they didn’t represent my experience at all. I had to keep saying, ‘No, it’s not like that there.’ I’ve been justifying why it isn’t negative to be Iranian for almost 20 years. How strange, when it isn’t something I did or chose to be? After I finished university, there were nine of us, all artists and friends, working in a studio together. That group finally said, ‘Do something with your stories.’ They introduced me to graphic novelists. [MAUS author Art] Spiegelman was first. And when I read him, I thought ‘Jesus Christ, it’s possible to tell a story and make a point this way.’ It was amazing.”
Indeed, it is amazing how effectively Satrapi’s sketches communicate the complexity of her story. For example, in the scene in which the diminutively designated “Marji’s” benevolent, revolutionary Uncle Anoush explains the history of the coronation and eventual deposition of the monarchic Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the action is acted out by puppet-like cutouts on a stage that floats onto the screen as though it is part of a childlike dream. Later on, a pair of swans carved out of bread float away, providing a poignant pictorial to match Marji’s pain upon losing that same uncle. Similarly, scenes of everything from the aftermath of a particularly devastating missile attack to a point in the plot during which Marji deals with depression are evocatively illustrated so as to perfectly marry the visual and the visceral.
Featuring voices by famous French names like Danielle Darrieux, Simon Abkarian, the great Catherine Deneuve and Deneuve’s daughter, along with the equally talented Italian actors Marcello Mastroianni and Chiara Mastroianni, the film’s acting may be limited to its French voice-overs, but the film’s performances are just as compelling and complex as anything being offered by live-action films currently at the multiplexes
Throughout “Persepolis,” the poignant flourishes alongside the parodic, the serious sits comfortably next to the satirical and humor and heartbreak are as intricately intertwined as humanly possible. The structure of the story is almost Shakespearean in its ability to portray the tragic and the comic within the same two hours. Yet, the movie’s core is incredibly modernist in its ability to effectively convey the history of a country and of a people, a history fraught with such moral and political complexity that it seems it should be beyond the kind of comprehension you are able to achieve from merely watching a movie.
“Persepolis” may be especially capable of conveying the poignant pathos of Satrapi’s story, but it is also remarkable for its ability to effectively capture and communicate the cultural connection between Satrapi’s story and that of any other teenager coming of age in the ’70s and ’80s. From the Bee Gees to Iron Maiden, “Rocky” to “Godzilla,” Doc Martens to sky-high heels, Satrapi’s experiences are even more empathetic because of her ability to couch them within a cultural context that transcends national boundaries and international identities.
According to Satrapi, it is this cross-cultural connection that she hoped to convey within “Persepolis.”
“I’m a pacifist. I believe there are ways to solve the world’s problems. Instead of putting all this money to create arms, I think countries should invest in scholarships for kids to study abroad. Perhaps they could become good and knowledgeable professors in their own countries,” Satrapi said. “You need time for that kind of change, though. I have been brought up open-minded. If I didn’t know any people from other countries, I’d think everyone was evil, based on news stories. But I know a lot of people, and know that there is no such thing as stark good and evil. Isn’t it possible there is the same amount of evil everywhere? If people are given the chance to experience life in more than one country, they will hate a little less. It’s not a miracle potion, but little by little, you can solve problems in the basement of a country, not on the surface. That is why I wanted people in other countries to read Persepolis, to see that I grew up just like other children.”