Any stragglers still unconvinced that animation can be an exciting medium for both adults and kids will run out of arguments in the face of “Persepolis.” Like the four-volume series of graphic novels on which it’s based, this autobiographical tour de force is completely accessible and art of a very high order. First-person tale of congenitally rebellious Marjane Satrapi, who was 8 years old when the Islamic Revolution transformed her native Teheran, boasts a bold lyricism spanning great joy and immense sorrow. In both concept and execution, hand-drawn toon is a winner. Sony Classics will release an English-dubbed version Stateside.
France-based Satrapi, who co-directed with fellow illustrator Vincent Paronnaud, is a sterling example of what good advice “Write (and draw) what you know” can be in gifted hands. Pic’s specificity is what renders it universal. From Baltimore to Beijing, anybody who ever had a family, a government and/or aspirations for personal happiness should be able to relate.
Narrative, which starts in 1978 and continues into the 1990s, could have been just another coming-of-age tale, but Satrapi and Paronnaud navigate their sharp melding of form and content with assurance. Result zips along with considerable humor, much of it self-deprecating, interspersed with darker material.
Animation perfectly translates Satrapi’s deceptively simple black and white drawings. Much like Art Spiegelman’s anthropomorphic cats and mice vis-a-vis the history of the Shoah in “Maus,” Satrapi’s expressive, pleasingly pared down style lends itself to the pleasures of everyday life as well as the horrors of war and state repression. Original books used only stark black and white; shades of gray and evocative backgrounds are added for the screen, along with subtle patches of color in select settings.
Made entirely in France, three-year project required the skills of Gaul’s last working animation tracers (armed with felt-tip pens) and looks terrific on a budget of $8.1 million.
Protag’s voiceover is woven into highly visual tale, with a dynamite cast voicing the main characters. (Satrapi works in French, so that is what the whole population of Teheran speaks.)
Adorable, spirited Marjane (Gabrielle Lopes) is an only child, raised with love and encouraged in her singularity and independence by educated, intellectual parents Tadji (Catherine Deneuve) and Ebi (Simon Abkarian). Feisty Marjane couldn’t be closer to her wise, indomitable grandmother (magnificently voiced by vet Danielle Darrieux), whose frank blend of classy and earthy is irresistible. The Satrapi family values creativity, decency, personal courage and, as often as possible, a good time.
At pic’s outset, the Shah’s days are numbered. There is great excitement in the Satrapi household whose occupants trust that the people of Iran, having had their fill of dictatorship, will usher in a new era of freedom and prosperity. But they would be wrong.
Young Marjane watches her familiar secular existence morph into theocratic lunacy, with headscarves mandatory and repressive idiocy the order of the day. Still a child, she goes on speaking out, with trouble never far behind. Friends and relatives are imprisoned or worse. Iraq starts an eight-year war and the knee-jerk culture of martyrdom takes hold with a vengeance.
But despite Khomeini, Marjane and her friends show off their contraband Bee Gees and ABBA records and buy bootleg cassettes peddled as if they were heroin.
Knowing they can’t tame their daughter’s outspoken nature and fearing for her safety, Marjane’s parents send her to Vienna, solo, at age 14. (As a teen and adult, Marjane is splendidly voiced by Chiara Mastroianni.)
The roller coaster of Marjane’s life is just getting started. People, as well as countries, have to learn the hard way what works and what doesn’t.
In decrying conformity and totalitarianism, intelligent toon demonstrates how ideology perverts human nature. Pic champions integrity and resistance and shows that even smarter-than-average people sometimes do dumb things.
These characters smoke like chimneys, but only an ayatollah would mandate an R-rating based on animated individuals “inhaling” pen and ink smoke. They also blow off steam thanks to Iron Maiden, Bruce Lee and, in one of toon’s best set pieces, the “Rocky” theme “Eye of the Tiger.”
Marjane’s intellectual fantasies include chats with God and Karl Marx perched in the heavens. The growth spurt during which Marjane’s limbs and features hatch like recalcitrant Silly Putty is a visual highlight.
Thoughtful score provides spot-on accompaniment to everything from pointless death to first love. So far, Gena Rowlands has been announced as the English-lingo voice of the grandmother and Deneuve is slated to reprise her role in Yank dub.