Friday, January 25, 2008

Grown up animation about an Iranian girl

Summary: Beautifully animated in black-and-white and never less than involving, Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" tells the compelling story of a young woman growing up in (and outside of) Iran.

In adapting a series of autobiographical graphic novels for the screen, Satrapi shows how historical events can impact an individual life. "Persepolis'' -- which Satrapi directed with Vincent Parannaud -- is a work of high spirits and refreshing skepticism: It reassures us that there always will be people who refuse to capitulate to their society's worst impulses. And in the case of Iran, this is a very good thing. If you believe that Iran is a country populated solely by shrieking extremists, this movie may force you to rethink your view.

If you also want an idea of what it might have been like to grow up in Iran in the 1970s and 1980s, "Persepolis" will provide it. The movie's main character -- based on the director -- was raised in a liberal, sophisticated Iranian home in which the downfall of the Shah was welcomed. The celebration, however, was short-lived; the family's hopes for a freer society were dashed by the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. When the mullahs took charge, the girl began an odyssey of estrangement that took her to Vienna, then back to Iran and finally to Paris.

"Persepolis" succeeds for three reasons: Its exceptionally creative, two-dimensional animation style lends itself to expressive storytelling, its story is totally absorbing and Satrapi has a capacity for independent observation that shatters stereotypes. These factors enable Satrapi to deliver a work of unusual honesty and idiosyncratic fervor.

As a girl, the movie's main character already distinguishes herself from the pack. She buys Iron Maiden CDs on the black market and luxuriates in the chop-and-kick violence of Bruce Lee movies. We see the liberating qualities of popular culture, the same popular culture that's so often derided by religious fanatics -- and not only in Iran.

Don't let references on the lighter side mislead you: Satrapi's story does not neglect the harrowing impact of tyranny. The young Marjane becomes a displaced and alienated young woman, but her politically active uncle suffers a worse fate: He's murdered.

If there's a character who best embodies the history and wisdom of Persian culture its Marjane's grandmother, a woman who both encourages her granddaughter and attempts to keep her life on track. Grandma also resists stereotyping: She likes to put jasmine flowers in her bra. She's a wonderful character -- warm, strong and smart.

Marjane experiences a variety of changes as the movie develops, but whatever may be happening, Satrapi refuses to turn herself into either a saint or a martyr. She's a flawed young woman who fights to maintain her individuality and humanity -- and "Persepolis" does the same: The movie tells a story that keeps us from succumbing to easy moralizing, as well as to the kind of self-betraying hypocrisy Satrapi probably would deplore.

For that reason alone, "Persepolis" can't be viewed as just another animated movie; it's work of deep personal expression and great artistry. Like its demonstrative main character, it demands not to be ignored. So don't.

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