“Freedom has a price,” is a line spoken at the very end of Persepolis, a French animated film based on Marjane Satrapi’s marvelous multi-volume autobiographical cartoon, the story of her childhood in Iran under the Shah and the Islamic revolution, her time abroad at school in Vienna, and her return to Iran as a young woman. The result is a fascinating and surprisingly entertaining film, filled with humor, warmth, and an emotional range all too rare in contemporary film, animated or otherwise. Directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, Persepolis, along with Ratatouille and Surf’s Up, has been nominated for the Oscar for best animated feature.
Young Marji is a mesmerizing character, with facial expressions and tones of voice that capture a familiar range of childhood traits and emotions. Early in the story, Marji is part of a happy, moderately Westernized family. She adores Bruce Lee, wears Adidas, and fashions herself the “last prophet in the galaxy.” She converses regularly with a gentle grandfatherly God, depicted as a sort of cross between Dumbledore and Moses. At this point in the film, Marji resembles a sarcastic and irreverent version of Madeline – endearing, but with an edge reflecting her precocious intelligence and biting wit.
As the political situation alters and the threats of violence press ever nearer to her own family, Marji tries to make sense of the larger world her parents inhabit. One day she is cheering the shah, whom she assures her parents was appointed by God; soon enough she sports a bandana and marches about the house chanting, “Down with the Shah.” The terror of the new regime works its way into Marji’s games with her friends: She organizes a contest the loser of which is to be tortured by the others. Presented with a light touch, the scene nonetheless make its point and confirms Tocqueville’s observation on the way in which the dominant principles of a regime work their way into all pockets of a society, even into the games of children.
The country and her family’s life are completely altered over the course of two years. Her uncle, who tells her stories about politics and dissidence, is arrested; allowed only one visitor while he awaits execution, he chooses Marji. Subject to strict dress codes and to endless speeches celebrating the blood of martyrs and inveighing against “Western decadence,” Marji finds herself unable to suppress her objections or her mockery. Defiant speeches in class earn applause from her classmates but rebuke from her teachers. Her increasingly worried parents, who are always affectionate but alternately proud of, and exasperated with, their daughter, decide to send her to a French school in Vienna.
Throughout the film, her grandmother acts as guide, offering consolation, affection, and advice. Grandma admonishes Marji that nothing is worse than “bitterness and revenge” and repeatedly advises her to remain true to herself. Lest we find the last admonition to be no more than the hollow platitude of a Polonius, her Grandma chastises Marji for selfish behavior and reminds her of the standards of her family. The film is unabashed in its celebration of multi-generational families, particularly those where oral traditions and storytelling flourish.
At school in Vienna, Marji is surrounded by archly sophisticated European students. Hip and jaded, her classmates find it cool that she has witnessed a revolution and seen dead bodies. Initially pleased at her celebrity, she tires of the group’s rhetoric. When a male classmate insouciantly proclaims that life is void of purpose, she retorts that some people “have given their lives for freedom” and calls him an “egotistical prick.”