Persepolis (2007) dir. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud
Voices by: Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, Simon Abkarian
“Persepolis” is a film more to admire than to be truly entertained by. It's based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel about her own experience living in Iran during the 1979 revolution and the cultural identity problems of living in Vienna as a youth. A unique animation style and the unfamiliar political backstory make for a refreshing alternative to Hollywood animation, but the film is surprisingly empty and vacant emotionally.
Iranian youngster Marjane Satrapi and her family are the main characters who are animated in a unique 2-D B&W sharply contrast style. It’s 1978, the U.S.-based Shah of Iran rules, but seeds of a revolution are in place. Marjane is an only child and she was raised by secular intellectuals. And so when the government is replaced by religious fundamentalism of the Ayatollah Khomeni (his name isn’t mentioned for some reason), the Satrapi’s way of life is throw into upheaval.
Marjane is suddenly forced to wear a headscarve and she and all women in society are found to be lower class citizens. From this suppression Marjane develops her sense of independence and cultural revolt. ABBA and Michael Jackson records are traded on the street like drug deals, and Marjane is not afraid to experiment and experience the pop culture of the Western world. Marjane is sent by her parents to study in Vienna where she experiences a new world. Being uprooted though, Marjane losing her sense of home and identity. Her decision to return seems to weigh the lesser of two evils.
The simplicistic animation made up of strict black and white (there's not a speck of grey to be found) rudimentary, undetailed figures is a refreshing contrast to the photo realistic computer animation of Hollywood. The abstractness compliments the intellectual material. Certainly watching the Blu-Ray version is a glorious experience, since sharp lines and deep blacks are always represented best in high definition.
As a political statement and a piece of ideological discourse, it's an inspired creative endeavour, but as an engaging story it's an under-realized piece of cinema. The story feels like a series of vignettes roughly strung together with only the history timeline connecting the dots. There's very few emotional beats making her journey larger than the historical turmoil surrounding Marjane's life.
The DVD features the original French language audio track with English subtitles and an English audio track featuring the voices talents of Gena Rowlands and Sean Penn, who provides an especially lazy reading of his lines. I highly recommend going with the original French track, because without the whimsy of the French language, all poignant humour between the lines is lost.
The international success of "Persepolis" is no surprise, it's originality is more than enough to trump its faults. More films like this will find its way into theatres and DVD shelves. Watch for "Waltz with Bashir" a similar animated memoir, from the point of view of an Israeli soldier - to make a splash later in the year. Enjoy.
"Persepolis" is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Sony Picture Home Entertainment