Watching Persepolis -- an animated adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's best-selling graphic novel memoir -- I didn't just feel excited intellectually and artistically; I actually felt emotionally engaged, wrung-out, exhilarated, saddened and touched by Satrapi's story of life as a young woman coming of age in pre-revolutionary Iran and after. Persepolis is a fresh, moving, out-of-the-gate masterpiece -- a work of animation that manages to be artistically brilliant, politically rich, morally engaging and emotionally overwhelming.
Persepolis opens with grown-up Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) at Orly airport in Paris, bracing herself for a trip to Tehran -- and adjusting her headscarf. She's looked and sidelong by strangers, judged for her submission to Islam -- and none of those judging her will ever know how reluctantly, sadly, dejectedly she puts on the hijab before heading home. Marjane grew up in Tehran in the '70s and the movie flashes back to her life in 1978: "When I was growing up, I had two obsessions: Shaving my legs one day and being the ultimate prophet of the galaxy. ..." Marjane is a kid -- exuberant, expressive, in love with Bruce Lee movies -- but even with the love of her mom (Catherine Deneuve) and dad (Simon Abkarian), Iran's not an easy place to be a kid; there's revolution in the street, the Shah in power and change in the air.
And all this unfolds in wonderful animation -- bold, black-and-white compositions that feel fresh and unique and universal at the same time. Persepolis was co-directed by Satrapi and Vincen Parronaud, and their animated adaptation of Satrapi's original drawings is wonderful stuff -- the look of the film evokes everything from Herge's Tintin to Charles Schultz's Peanuts in the character design, while the visuals are influenced by everything from '90s indie comics to '30s Soviet propaganda art. Just as Marjean and we are getting used to life in urbane, groovy '70s Tehran, the revolution comes -- and Iran goes from being a secular dictatorship to a religious one. It's not an improvement.
Marjane just wants to be a kid -- playing, rocking out -- and that becomes nearly impossible. She buys music on the black market (street-hawkers whisper about the availability of their wares: "Stevie Wonder." "Julio Inglasias." "Jichael Mackson.") and plays along with the picayune demands of the religious authorities -- but there are some things you can't play along with, and as Iran's civil infrastructure crumbles, Marjane's family pays the price. Marjane is our narrator and heroine, but she's not perfect --we see her mistakes, her flaws, her failings; there's a certain amusing irony that one of the most three-dimensional characters I've seen on-screen in 2007 is captured in two-dimensional animation.
Persepolis is heartbreakingly sad; it is also amazingly funny. A moment where a riled-up young Marjane goes to take back the streets -- singing Survivor's 'Eye of the Tiger' at top volume -- is hilarious, as is a sequence where Marjane details the physical transitions of puberty through animation in a sequence full of fluid transformations and sproing! sound effects. But when Marjane is on the street, accosted by two older, conservative, burka-clad women, their robe-clad shapes twist and shift with serpentine fearsomeness, challenging her jacket with 'Punk is not Ded' written with more passion than precision on the back -- and we feel Marjane's fear and helplessness. After Marjane leaves Iran for Europe, she has the same adolescent flailings we all had -- and is troubled by problems few of us can even contemplate: "I had a safe, frivolous life, while those I loved were haunted. ..." She tries to return; she tries to stay away. Neither is anything but heartbreaking.
"The personal is the political"; it's a phrase that's been repeated so many times, it's meaningless. But it applies here, and it means something here, too. Satrapi shows us the universal and the specific, her journey and sadness alongside that of an entire nation. In America, we think animation is a medium for kid's storytelling, and any attempts to try otherwise are usually artistic and commercial flops. Persepolis proves that animation can be used to tell grow-up stories that matter in the real world, a wrenching tale of the ignorant misery inflicted on men and women under fundamentalist Islamic rule and a must-see art work for anyone interested in seeing the artistic and emotional possibilities of the animation - and filmmaking -- used to their full potential.