“Persepolis” is the flashback of Iranian-born Parisian Marjane Satrapi in the form of a black-and-white animated French film. Satrapi herself adapted the film from her memoir, a graphic novel of the same name. The book is a masterpiece, the film excellent. By telling her personal history, Satrapi offers a political message. The story of little Marji growing up in revolutionary and wartime Iran turns out to be everyone’s story. The content as well as the inspiration for the film — the seduction of reminiscence, no matter how horrible the memories — resonate with all of us.
This coming-of-age story is haunting. Eight-year-old Marji sees herself as a prophet born to change the world. Her dreams fade as she grows up and faces not only reality, but worse, mediocrity. But this is the power of storytelling: We realize as viewers that we are all prophets just for making it through this dim world. Her mother faints in the airport when Marjane is sent to live with friends in Vienna, and your heart swells with grief and longing.
We watch Marjane go through various stages in which she uses different identities to try to define a sense of self. Throughout the film she sees herself as Communist, pot-smoker, anarchist, punk, feminist, lover, free-spirited aerobics teacher and sometimes as nothing much at all. Whereas her memories of childhood are narrated with loud music, in the ennui of her later life, she wanders around grey cities. But the resonance of “Persepolis” brings lightness and hope to its dark, bleak vision.
The book and film literally and figuratively unveil Muslim women for Western audiences. The Shah is overthrown when Marjane is 10 years old so that she knows both pre- and post-revolutionary Iran. The veil itself is a mystifying and alien article for her that she never finds natural.
Satrapi proves herself to be a rebellious young woman who sees through her male oppressors. One day when she’s running to class, the police tell her to stop because her “behind makes movements that are … obscene!” She answers, “Well, then stop looking at my ass!” Satrapi the author exposes the highly sexualized environment of the conservative regime. Movements to control women’s appearances are symptomatic of a focus on the potency of male sexuality.
Satrapi follows in the footsteps of Art Spiegelman, whose “Maus” first showed the episodic narrative of the graphic novel to be suitable to biography. “Persepolis” is evidence of Spiegelman’s lasting legacy. The book’s still frames are like the flashing images of memory. In “Persepolis” the film, simplicity is also key. At the beginning of the film, we see Marjane sitting in a coffee shop somewhere in the western world on a dreary day dreaming of her past life. This scene is in color, but the rest of the film is in black-and-white. Unknown dying civilians are often represented in silhouette to emphasize their anonymity for Marjane. When Marjane descends into profound depression at age 19, she turns into an outline. The simple reversal of the relationship between black and white can signify a scene change to a distant memory.
A version with English voices is being released, but I recommend the original version narrated by Catherine Deneuve, Chiara Mastroianni and Danielle Darriex, whose personalities give the film a French nonchalance suitable to the outlook of “Persepolis.”