Marjane Satrapi grew up in Iran, living through the end of the Shah's regime, the revolution that overthrew the Shah, and the establishment of the fundamentalist government that imposed increasingly strict rules upon the Iranian people, especially girls and women. In Persepolis, the film adaptation of her popular graphic novels, Satrapi acts as a historian of sort of her own life, visualized in stark grayscale animation that brings the novel to life on the big screen.
When we first meet Marjane, she's a nine-year-old would-be punk rocker running about in her jeans and Adidas sneakers; we follow her through her early coming-of-age and rebelliousness during the transition after the Shah's government was overthrown, during which her parents, concerned for her safety, sent her to school in Austria. She was supposed to stay with a friend of her mother's, but the friend tired of having her after only a couple days, and dropped her off at a boarding school. A series of moves followed, as Marjane struggled to fit into her new culture. She'd left Iran in part because of religious fundamentalism and intolerance; in Austria, she found intolerance of a different sort, and was hindered by assumptions her fellow students had about Iran and Iranians. She found a way to fit in, and even fell in and out of love, but ultimately missed her family and moved back to Iran for a few years before finally leaving her home country for good.
Marjane is perhaps not representative of all girls growing up in Iran during that time -- her parents were intellectuals and rebels; her uncle was a political prisoner and a hero. Marjane, therefore, is no shy-and-retiring young lady. As a child, she plays at being a rebel and a protestor, and goads her friends, after the toppling of the Shah's regime, to attack a boy whose father was part of the secret police. But Marjane and her friends are also like young girls everywhere: they laugh, they play, they flirt with boys and agonize over zits and puberty, even as the culture becomes predominantly fundamentalist and they are forced to cover their heads with scarves. As a young woman later in the tale, after returning to Iran from Europe, Marjane gets out of trouble with a couple of fundamentalist militants by accusing another man of making an inappropriate pass at her; she finds this funny, even though the man was arrested because of her ruse, -- but she changes her tune when she tells her grandmother the tale,and her beloved grandmother tells her she should be ashamed and turns her back on her.
But really, this isn't a film just about Marjane's history; her life, her stories, are simply the one person's life out of thousands that could have been told about Iran during this period. Persepolis shows us a slice of time, it reminds us that Iran was once much more modern in its outlook that it is perceived to be today, it shows us the changes wrought in that society by religious fundamentalism, war, and intolerance. In that respect, it's an apt analogy for people in America to see -- fundamentalist Christian groups have their own ideas they'd likely not mind imposing on society as a whole, and it seems that daily our rights are chipped away at in the name of "freedom" from terror, even as we fight a war in Iraq and our president makes veiled threats against Iran. More than anything, Persepolis shows us what happens when religious fundamentalism and intolerance -- of any stripe -- is allowed to be the foundation on which a country's leadership is built.
Marjane's story could have been told in a live-action dramatic narrative film, or a documentary, but the choice to stick with this highly stylized animation approach works very well, and has the effect of removing a layer of ethnicity, thereby making the story more universal. This isn't the story of an Iranian girl, it's the story of a girl who lived through eight years of war and societal changes, who happens to be Iranian. The visuals sometimes get more abstract and dreamy, adding to the stylized feel of the film. The film has over 600 unique characters, and Satrapi drew each of them from the front and profile before turning them over to the animators to bring them to life.
The animated characters are further brought to life by the excellent voiceover work, especially by Catherine Deneuve as Marjane's mother, and Chiara Mastroianni as Marjane. A version with an English voiceover is also in the works, with voiceovers provided by the likes of Sean Penn, Iggy Pop and Gena Rowlands (not sure how I feel about that, but then again I'm a sucker for subtitles and will hunt down the original-language versions of foreign films rather than watching dubs any day). Persepolis screened at both Telluride and Toronto, and the film has a December limited release date, so keep an eye out for it coming to a theater near you.