“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.”
The film is wonderful in its depiction of the confusion and longing of the teen years. Marji swears off love after her first strongly felt attraction ends with the young man realizing that he is actually gay. Her affection for her next boyfriend seems to be reciprocated — until she finds him cheating on her. That failure in love sends her on a downward spiral of depression and anger. Finding herself alone and nearly dead from illness, she observes tartly that she survived war and the death of family members but was nearly killed by a “banal love story.”
The seemingly ubiquitous experience of teen alienation is depicted here with a balance of pathos and humor. Given the conflicting political contexts of Marji’s early life, dislocation here is indicative of much more than teen angst; it hints at the difficulties of cultural isolation, the problem of memory, and the threats to integrity. Deciding to return to Iran, she finds her depression deepening with the discovery that she is just as much a stranger in her own country as she was in Austria.
God’s reappearance inspires her to pick herself up and fight. The opening chords of “Eye of the Tiger,” signal Marji’s renewed sense of purpose; her ensuing singing, in an Iranian accent, of the Rocky theme song is one of the more memorable scenes in the film. In another funny scene, she wanders the streets of Tehran in search of forbidden, bootleg recordings of Western rock musicians. The setting here is hilarious, as the sellers — one of whom is promoting the latest from a rock star called “Jichael Mackson” — act as if they were street-corner drug dealers. In contrast to the Iranian regime, Satrapi finds Western decadence, not in rock music, but in the sophisticated nihilism of Europe.
Satrapi’s Persepolis appeared in print in 2003, the same year as Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. Both stories describe lives interrupted by Iranian totalitarianism from different but complimentary perspectives: Satrapi’s is that of a young female student trying to understand herself amid nearly unintelligible forces; Nafisi’s is that of a teacher, who knows what the mullahs are taking away, and who tries desperately to preserve for a few young women access to a world of forbidden, imaginative literature — Western novels that provide them with a language to understand their own place in the world and to judge the limits, indeed the evils, of their regime. In both cases, art is an instrument of critique and a vehicle of transcendence.
Turning Satrapi’s books into a film took two years, 150,000 drawings, and the collaborative work of 100 animators. The visual result is stunning. At first glance, the animation has the appearance of being rough and unfinished, but upon closer inspection every detail emerges as a master-stroke. The hand-crafted techniques (and the nearly exclusive use of black and white) are more restrained and more supple than what American viewers are used to in our florid CGI animation. Throughout the film, image and sound match one another neatly, perhaps nowhere more effectively than in the depiction of the horrors of battle and the suggestion of methods of torture.
For all her artistry, Satrapi eschews pretentious labels: “I hate this word ‘graphic novel.’ It is a term publishing houses have created for the bourgeois so they wouldn’t be ashamed of buying comics. . . . I’m not a graphic novelist. I am a cartoonist and I make comics and I am very happy about it. I never wanted to make a graphic novel. As soon as you become a ‘writer,’ you have to be intelligent all the time. . . . I like the fact that I have the right once in a while to say silly things.”
Satrapi’s silliness is a welcome relief from the smug self-importance of most contemporary art. But true comedy, as Satrapi doubtless also knows, is a very serious matter indeed. Largely because of its humor, Persepolis is a film of great emotional range, a reminder of truths about human life that we seem always in danger of forgetting.
—Thomas Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of the forthcoming book, Arts of Darkness.