Film: Review: Persepolis

Animated film is a stark look at a girl's traumatic childhood

Sony Classics

Oppressive forces look down on Marjane (center) in Persepolis.

Persepolis arrives in Cincinnati as a cause celebre within the art-film community. This animated feature, adapted by Marjane Satrapi from her autobiographical graphic novels about life in post-Islamic Revolution Iran, was considered a cinch for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination. (It's France's official entry, as well as co-winner of the Jury Prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival.)

Yet it failed to make the shortlist, although it was nominated for a Best Animated Film Oscar. That failure, along with the omission of the highly praised Romanian film, 4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days (about a woman's struggle for an abortion during the Communist regime) has cinephiles upset about the secretive and seemingly flawed nominating process for foreign films. There's also concern about the Oscars overlooking two outspoken films about women facing oppression. Expect major changes, and soon.

I can see why an Oscar foreign-film nominating committee might pass on Persepolis. The animation is intentionally close in form and spirit to Satrapi's graphic novels — hand-drawn, mostly black and white with an intentional flatness to the characters, although backgrounds can be quite textured. It's childlike, worlds away from modern computer-generated animation.

That is, in some ways, the film's point. Satrapi is telling a story that begins with herself as a 9-year-old child, after all, so it needs to be through her eyes. The approach is also an effective way to get at the horrors of Iran — set it up as an innocent child's world and then watch as the joyless, violent religious extremists impose their will upon it. And in those scenes where we see violence and death — including black-ink blood — the effect is eerie and profound. It comes from a child's vision interrupted. As animated films go, it certainly beats the expensive CGI fantasies of Shrek for emotional power.

Satrapi and her co-director, Vincent Paronnaud (also a graphic novelist), along with a team of trace animators, do make Persepolis seem a fully functioning world despite the relative old-fashionedness of the animation. The film also uses Olivier Bernet's score and the silly Pop song "Eye of the Tiger" very well.

As a story, Persepolis is most effective in its first part, where Marjane is a young girl and then teen (voiced by first Gabrielle Lopes and then Chiara Mastroianni) in Tehran. Her leftwing, intellectual family suffers under the Shah's regime and dreams of change. Her mother Tadji (Catherine Deneuve) is a modern woman; her grandmother (Danielle Darrieux) is a rock of support and strength. Young Marjane becomes her own one-girl protest movement, chanting for the Shah's downfall the way an American child her age might chant for more Sesame Street. She also has short talks with God.

But when the Islamic Revolution comes in 1979, they've got something worse. There's a new, fascistic morality police patrolling everywhere. They are thoroughly capable of beating, imprisoning and even murdering people who drink alcohol at a party, listen to Western music, wear make-up or don't keep their head scarves tight. The film slowly lets the seriousness of the situation sink in with both Marjane — still a defiant, rebellious girl at heart — and us.

It's a powerful learning experience watching how a police state takes control. It's also scary to watch how Marjane and her parents escape from certain jams and learn to police themselves. And there is an endless war going on with Iraq, too.

Yet, I have to say, at a certain point the gravity of the situation sets in with us while Marjane remains rather dense about it. She's less interested in organized political resistance than in trying to get away with small acts of defiance — as if she's special. When she reaches college-age, her parents send her to Austria, itself an act of privilege.

There her social skills and romantic entanglements send her into a psychological tailspin that pales in urgency (to us) compared to what we've seen of her life in Iran. And when she returns home to her family, despite the political repression, it feels like she should know better.

As terrible as Iran is, you do sort of wonder at this point: "Doesn't this girl get it?" She's no longer young. So she ends up not being a particularly sympathetic character. She does, however — and this is crucial for an animated film to be successful — retain her humanity, bad judgments and all. Grade: B

Opens Feb. 1. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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