Persepolis

Can one call a 95-minute, low-budget, animated film an epic? I think this one qualifies. It may also qualify as a masterpiece. It’s certainly an excellent and an important movie.

Iranian/French cartoonist Marjane Satrapi based Persepolis on her own autobiographical graphic novels (Vincent Paronnaud shares screenwriting and directing credits). Through the eyes of young Marjane (I’m calling the artist by her last name, the onscreen character by her first), we see Iran go through oppression, revolution, hope, worse oppression, war, and even worse oppression. What an environment in which to grow up!

When we first meet Marjane, she’s a young kid trying to integrate the pro-Shah propaganda she’s getting at school with the more honest opinions of her family. When a radical uncle is released from prison, he becomes her hero.

Everything looks wonderful when the Shah is overthrown, but religious fanaticism soon puts an end to everyone’s hard-won liberties. Marjane finds ways to rebel as she hits adolescence, buying illicit Iron Maiden tapes and wearing a “Punk Lives” jersey. But it’s a dangerous rebellion, and she knows it.

The story covers the war with Iraq, a late adolescence in Vienna, a return to an Iran now at peace but still under the clergy’s thumb, and a romantic life made difficult by pressures internal and external.

Satrapi and Paronnaud wisely chose a clean, simple, two-dimensional, and mostly black-and-white animation style. (Did they choose it, or was it a low-budget necessity? Either way, it’s right for the story.) The sparse, clean lines and flat movements convey everything from battlefield horrors to horrific police to the love between a young girl and her grandmother.

Persepolis works as a lesson in recent Iranian history, and as a study of how good revolutions so easily turn bad. But more importantly, it’s a moving and occasionally funny story about how people not only survive but live and grow in the worst situations.