Cazz Blase considers how Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical story of coming-of-age in Iran and Europe transfers to the big screen
I first saw the film Persepolis in May at the Cornerhouse in Manchester, in French with English subtitles, and in high definition. Normally I wouldn’t care whether a film is in HD or not, but, having seen it, I feel Persepolis is one of those rare films that actually benefits from the technology. I’ll explain why later…
Persepolis is an animated adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s two-volume, graphic novel autobiography. The Cornerhouse described it as: “A gorgeous and intelligent animated film that follows the life of a rebellious young girl growing up in ’70s and ’80s Iran, and her exile in Europe.” The film posters make references to growing up, revolution and punk rock.
It is a tale of strength through adversity and, while autobiographical, is not the full story, as Satrapi pointedly told Jonathan Romney in The Independent in April. She also claimed, in the same interview, that she wrote the original books as a way of setting the record straight about Iran, not as therapy.
In the introduction to the first volume of Persepolis, Satrapi says that since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran is no longer seen as an old and great civilization, but as a byword for fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism.
She writes: “As an Iranian who has lived more than half my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth.” She adds: “I believe that an entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists. I also don’t want those Iranians who lost their lives in prison defending freedom, who died in the war against Iraq, who suffered under various repressive regimes, or who were forced to leave their families and flee their homeland to be forgotten.
“One can forgive but one should not forget.”
As the world’s eyes are, once again, on Iran, this film feels oddly timely. Not because it paints the Iranian people as universally good or bad – it doesn’t – but because it muddies the waters and, most importantly, provides the country with a series of human faces.
Satrapi’s women are far from being the silent black blobs of xenophobic stereotype; they are complex and resourceful, realistic but feisty, and certainly not silent. Similarly, the men are not severe, humourless and ragingly fundamentalist, but are complex human beings.
In both cases, it is suggested, while many have seen the regime change as an opportunity to grab some form of power for themselves (the devout yet medically-ignorant director of the hospital, who decides who can get a visa to be treated abroad and who can’t, the teacher at Marjane’s school who loudly changes ideology according to the prevailing wind), the majority of people have been forced to present one face to the outside world, and another inside, simply in order to survive.
Marjane’s mother is a feminist who visibly chafes and seethes at the scrutiny and stifling public regulation of her life, whilst Marjane initially takes refuge in Western pop culture. Later, when grown up and running down the street to catch a bus, she is made to stop by a patrol who have taken exception to what they see as the sexually suggestive nature of her movements while she is running, to which she yells that they should stop looking at her ass then. They are so surprised that they don’t even arrest her.
Satrapi adapted Persepolis herself and co-directed it with Vincent Paronnaud. It was hand-drawn by a team of 90 animators, according to The Telegraph, and took three years to make. Voices were provided by Chiara Mastroianni, who plays the teenage and adult Marjane, Catherine Deneuve, who plays her mother, Danielle Darrieux, who plays her grandmother, and Simon Abkarian, who plays her father. The young Marjane is played, delightfully, by Gabrielle Lopes and Marjane’s kindly uncle Anouche is played by François Jerosme.
The film begins, in colour, with the adult Marjane arriving in France as an émigré, before switching to black and white to convey her childhood in Iran and Austria. It’s a simple technique which is very effective.
By necessity, Persepolis the film is rather more abridged, historically, than Persepolis the books. This is fair enough, but it does mean that there are moments early on where the film feels a little didactic, as about 50 years of Iranian history is condensed into about five minutes. The Islamic Revolution is also abridged, but the use of puppets in this context is a nice touch.
The film is beautifully drawn, and is both shocking and touching in all the right places, for all the right reasons. One example of how the adaptation from page to screen really brought home the importance of the story is in the depiction of the bombing campaigns on Tehran during the Iran/Iraq war. On the page this is shocking enough, but it takes a big screen adaptation, in HD, to bring home something approaching the true horror of how it must have felt: The explosions, the rattling houses, the panic and fear… all of which make it almost unbearably poignant, and extremely difficult to watch, so harrowing is the overall result
By contrast, the humour of the books is preserved in the film – Satrapi clearly has a gift for the absurd. The scene in which Marjane investigates the black market, and purchases contraband Iron Maiden tapes from understandably furtive men in big coats would be one example; another would be the life drawing class at college, where the model is wearing a chador to appease the Muslim code of the college, and of the government.
At the age of 14, the increasingly outspoken Marjane was sent to Vienna by her parents. She spent her high school yee ars there before returning to Iran at the age of 18. During her time in Austria, she experienced culturshock and xenophobia, but did make friends – many, but not all, of whom were thoroughly superficial. She also fell in love. Unfortunately, she also became her school’s drug dealer and her boyfriend was proved to be disappointingly fallible, not to mention cowardly.
Upon returning to Iran, she feels alienated and depressed, not to mention slightly guilty because while she has been partying in Vienna, people have been dying in Iran. Once she felt like an outsider in Vienna, now she feels like an outsider in Iran, and she finds her girlfriends both vacuous, inane and disappointingly traditional in their views on female sexuality and morality. As her mother points out to the depressed and disappointed Marjane, it’s not as though anyone is asking them to be anything else
Following a long period of soul searching and readjustment, during which Marjane sees several therapists and attempts suicide, she awakens from the darkness and attacks her life with renewed vigour. This moment of life-changing determination is brilliantly, not to mention hilariously, encapsulated by use of montage, depicting Marjane in various high octane life-changing situations, and soundtracked by Mastroianni’s spirited rendition of ‘Eye Of The Tiger’, a brilliant satire of MTV.
Although abridged, the film does stay true to the central narrative of the books, that of the young girl growing up in Iran before and after the Islamic Revolution, of her coming of age in exile, of her return to Iran as an outsider, and of growing up while trying to live in an increasingly impossible society.
Marjane makes many mistakes, and she is forced to make the ultimate decision – to choose freedom in exile over sublimation and restriction at home. Neither choice is perfect, each requires sacrifices. When Marjane left for Vienna aged 14, her mother fainted at the airport as she left. When she leaves for France in her 20s, her grandmother dies just months after she leaves. “Freedom,” says the adult Marjane as the film concludes, “Always has a price.”
Persepolis is a sombre but strangely affirming film. Marjane is on a journey to discover herself, and that is something that everyone can relate to. It is released on DVD on 18 August 2008.
Image of white rose by Majid Rangraz on Unsplash