Marjane Satrapi has lived a rich life. She witnessed military, political and religious strife. She loved Bruce Lee. She studied in Vienna, living through (and resenting) Bohemian poverty. She adored the Bee Gees and Iron Maiden, had her heart broken countless times, lived on the streets, traveled to Iran for education and became an artist. She married at 21, and divorced not long after.
Like the rest of us, Satrapi came of age.
But through it all, she developed an infectious spirit, and it’s unavoidable on screen. Already depicted in two wonderfully wry graphic novels, Satrapi’s life story hits the big screen in the beautifully flawed animated film, “Persepolis.” Presented in gorgeous black and white with hints of color, this film is a nominee for best animated feature at the Academy Awards.
“Persepolis” feels like it’s re-inventing the wheel. Taking traditional animation and twisting it around, the film is the aesthetic opposite of “Ratatouille.” The concepts and visuals are on a grand scale. Only sparingly using color, it’s limitless in imagination, hinting at deeper meanings through subtle splashes. It’s just as complicated and clever with form, and equally successful from the perspective of a unique story.
Beginning with the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, we’re introduced to a young Marjane. Precocious and spunky, she’s quick to ask “why” in a place that discourages such questions. With her family, she has to abide by the new rules of the fundamentalists. Alcohol is banned, many are stripped of their identities and a new kind of way-too-young armed forces takes over. This is the time of the veil for Satrapi, and she must learn to live with it.
But Satrapi, like any rebellious teen, can’t handle it and is compelled to act accordingly, leaving Iran. Punk music, boys and experimenting all suffice, though it impacts her for the rest of her life. For all the changes she goes through, her heart longs for home. No matter where she goes, her cultural identity remains in Iran. Spanning almost 20 years of her life, the strongest part of the story is the protagonist’s inconsistency and emotions.
Like the most fascinating of life stories, Satrapi’s is dense and forever changing. She goes through a lot for even two lifetimes, let alone 20 years, and through her transformations we’re immersed in a fascinating life. Even for those of us with no reference point in responding to theocracy, we can relate because she has all the angst and self-reflexive development that comes with growing up.
The only problem with the film is that it feels like something Dickens may have written, forced into a single-episode format. Too breathless in its progression, the story could easily have benefited from slower pacing, or even a sequel. In one moment, Satrapi is sullenly depressed, only to rebound in the next scene as a flirt. The material is all very interesting, but when 80 things happen in 90 minutes, and the protagonist’s outlook ever changing, it can tire even the most patient filmgoer.
What looks like cheap Flash animation at first turns into a great visual meditation of finding oneself and never losing your identity. Gorgeous silhouettes allude to a faceless struggle in our eyes. Avant perspectives and peephole viewing sneak us into a life that’s not our own. But perfect exaggerations in facial expression give us just the right emotion every time, even if it’s a simple, black-and-white drawn face. Like the finest of shifting in Japanese perspective drawings, we’re given clarity and substance amidst an unclear life and time.
Rating: 3 and a half out of 5 stars
At the Michigan Theater