Persepolis: coming-of-age film could be more honest about life under police state regime

Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, “Persepolis” (2007)

Adapted from the graphic novel, originally published in two volumes, of the same name, this is a coming-of-age fictional autobiography of Marjane Satrapi, done in mostly black-and-white animation that mimicks the style of the novel. Satrapi, known in the film as simply Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni), grows up during a momentous period in Iran’s recent history which encompasses the last days and the overthrow of Mohammed Reza Pahlavi as Shah, the brief democracy that followed under Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan and the first 12 years of Islamic theocratic rule during which time the ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini is Supreme Leader (1980 – 1989) and Iraq under President Saddam Hussein invades Iran and the two countries are bogged down in a war that lasts 8 years. Although “Persepolis” primarily surveys Marjane’s early life and how she came to be the person she is, currently living in self-exile in France where she works as a graphic designer, the film also conveys something of how individuals manage to live and cope, though not very well, under the chronic stress of ongoing war and a highly repressive and brutal police state where grassroots political activity is outlawed.

The animation aims to humanise Iranians for a Western audience and show how easily we all can fall under repressive political rule; it also moves the narrative swiftly and efficiently, diving into little pieces of early 20th century Iranian history to make a particular point about how Western powers meddled in Iranian politics or how various members of Marjane’s family got into trouble with the authorities before moving back to Marjane’s life. This establishes the family and social background that made Marjane’s upbringing distinctive and perhaps unusual for a girl of her social class in Iran. Early on, the animation has a light-hearted comic-strip quality and the scenes are bright and happy: Marjane’s parents, called Ebi and Maman (voiced by Simon Akbarian and Catherine Deneuve) rejoice at the hated Shah’s removal which means that Uncle Anoosh is released from jail after a long period. Little Marjane quickly becomes close to Uncle Anoosh who tells her stories of his early life as a Communist supporter and his self-exile in the Soviet Union to evade the Shah’s agents. Unfortunately the brief democracy is hijacked by Khomeini in a March 1979 referendum when voters are given the choice between the monarchy continuing and an Islamic government (no other alternatives being considered) and 99% of the people opt for an Islamic government. Khomeini and his followers impose a narrow and literal interpretation of an ideal Islamic society on Iran. Soon Uncle Anoosh is arrested again and later executed. Not long after, President Hussein of Iraq sees an opportunity to steal the oil-rich Iranian province of Khuzestan and invades the country, beginning the long protracted war that resulted in nearly a million Iranian casualties. The animation follows the events in mood, becoming darker with entire scenes filling up with black as images of death appear and the film assumes a strong, depressive expressionist flavour.

Marjane’s relations with Ebi and Maman are clear-cut: Ebi is supportive and easy-going while Maman is the strict disciplinarian feminist who tries to raise Marjane to be an independent-minded girl. As war drags on and a bomb lands in their neighbourhood, killing a Jewish family Marjane knows, Ebi and Maman, fearing for the girl’s safety, send her to a French school in Vienna in Austria. Marjane’s time in Vienna is eventful: she goes from one boarding-house to another, falls in with a group of punks at school and has crushes on two boys who fail or betray her in some way. Her last months in Vienna are spent as a homeless vagrant after she angrily leaves a boarding-house and she ends up in hospital. This gives her an opportunity to escape Austria and return to Iran in the waning days of the Iran-Iraq war. After the death of Khomeini in 1989, the rest of the film details how Marjane tries to cope with everyday life in Iran and the pettiness of the morality police which force her into an early and failed marriage. Eventually, Marjane and her family conclude that she can no longer stay in the country and Marjane leaves Iran for good.

Persepolis” is not too bad as a stand-alone work though there are major flaws: there are details in the movie that seem irrelevant to the coming-of-age story and the movie’s pace can be so rapid that its treatment of what must have been significant episodes in Marjane’s life comes across as superficial and sketchy. The movie works best as a companion piece or introduction to the graphic novel, of which about 70% is present in the film. What the film does best is create a particular mood or atmosphere that can resonate powerfully with the audience; the scenes of war, death and of Marjane’s abject homelessness in the later months of her stay in Vienna are illustrated with large blocs of black that encroach on individual figures that might be illuminated with small spots of light. Fantasy scenes, history and dreams scenes come to the fore in ways they can’t in the graphic novel: characters fly in skies that look three-dimensional among fixed glowing stars; and Uncle Anoosh, as a youth, climbs through mountainous country in scenes that deliberately look like two-dimensional stand-up cut-outs, giving the impression of some kind of puppet show where the puppets have a life of their own.

Many details eliminated from the film are ones that might upset the general public: the film doesn’t mention among other things that while at school in Vienna, Marjane becomes a small-time drug dealer and then works as a waitress in a cafe where she is subjected to sexual harassment. There are other aspects in the film that need an explanation beyond what both the film and the novel can provide: why the Iranian government promotes a cult of martyrdom and sends teenage boys to “clear” minefields during the Iran-Iraq war, and why the regime continues as a police state long after the war has ended and Khomeini has died. Later scenes of “Persepolis” in which Marjane sinks into a rut of constant partying, fighting with her husband Reza (whom she married young, to escape the morality police’s attention) and generally living a life lacking in direction, all of which collide in a tragic death of a party-goer after a party gets sprung by the police, and force Marjane to sever her ties with Iran and go into self-exile, seem rushed because certain details have been edited out and thus lack focus. Some voice-over narration by Marjane could have explained to Western audiences why young Iranians at the time engaged in an apparently mindless and potentially destructive hedonistic life-style (because of the risk of being arrested and imprisoned, possibly tortured, by the morality police) as a form of political protest. The episode in which Marjane becomes badly depressed, attempts suicide and recovers from her illness by becoming a gym instructor is treated in a patchy way and her fine arts education also gets rough treatment. The result is a film that becomes blander and less interesting in its second half and falls into stereotypical chick-lit territory in which one generation of women, represented by Marjane’s grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), dispenses banal wisdom about being true to yourself and about marriage and divorce being part of normal life to the next generation.

“Persepolis” could have been a more forceful film; the animation lends itself readily to tackling topics like war, the waste of young lives, suicide and living in a police state in a no-nonsense way through one person’s point of view that a live-action film might not be able to do. The simple cartoon style enables the events portrayed to be scaled to both the personal level and a more political global level; the animation format has a flexibility that the live-action format lacks. Satrapi might not have been politically active or aware in her young adult days but could have tackled this aspect of her life with honesty; audiences would surely understand if the reason was that she found everyday life too stressful and intolerable due to the conditions created by the Islamic Republican regime.  This could have been the film’s most powerful message: while repressive governments may damage people physically through torture or exile, their worst effects are psychological through depression and mental illness, and social because they deform and corrupt important social and cultural institutions as evidenced in Marjane and Reza’s hasty short-lived marriage.

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