Persepolis (Sony Pictures Classics, PG-13)

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film_persepolis_sm.jpgThe Marjane of the film begins as a strange hybrid of Little Lulu and Bart Simpson, or maybe Kay Thompson's Eloise let loose on the streets of Tehran instead of the halls of the Ritz-Carlton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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More than the revisionist superhero fantasies of Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore, even more than the admirable but slightly academic history lesson of Art Spiegelman's Maus, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis may be the work that finally delivered the long-cherished mantle of literary respectability to the comic book—um, I mean "graphic novel." Originally published in France as a series of four volumes (the U.S. edition combined them into two), Satrapi's autobiographical account of growing up in Iran, starting in the final days of the Shah's regime and seeing her through the worst of the Islamic Revolution, is remarkable in its simplicity; using short vignettes and a deceptively simple visual style based on stark black-and-white drawings and unadorned square panels. (No splash panels or elaborate border patterns here; Satrapi makes a Jack Chick brochure look practically baroque in comparison.) Persepolis offers both a coming-of-age story rich in cultural relevance and a fresh perspective on the ideological and social conflicts of the Khomeini era.

But besides being a great story, Persepolis is a graphic novel (well, not really a novel, but "graphic memoir" doesn't quite have the same feel) and Satrapi has fortunately been allowed to transfer her story to screen without having to compromise or alter the characteristics that made the book so effective. The film version, which Satrapi co-directed with Vincent Paronnoud, may be the most faithful attempt to animate a comic artist's work since Winsor McKay made his frame-by-frame adaptation of Little Nemo. But it also takes advantage of the different medium to add new dimensions to an already evocative tale. Playing on the stark monochrome of the books, the film (which includes a modest color framing section of the adult Satrapi recalling her story in an airport bar while waiting for a return flight to Iran) seems to take the art of animation back to its roots, even making nods to such visual precursors as shadow puppetry, paper cutouts and flipbooks.

For those unfamiliar with the books, Persepolis is about a little girl who grows up under two forms of oppression, first enduring the political oppression of the pre-Khomeini years (her family, despite being descendants of an earlier Shah, was relatively progressive), then entering adolescence just as the severe restrictions of a fundamentalist Islamic regime imposed new restrictions on nearly every aspect of life. As a firsthand account of the Iranian 1980s, it's both an accessible and a subtly defiant view of life under pressure, told not through political events but through the way in which personal liberties—especially those which would be most important to a young woman suddenly forced to live under the veil—change and disappear.

Brilliantly, Persepolis not only redefines a political situation by pushing it through the sieve of popular culture, but does so by creating a character even more compelling and lively on screen than she was in the books. And as much as it's tied to the ideological upheavals, it's also a deeply personal story about growing up in the 1980s. The old and overused slogan that "the personal is political" actually applies as the heroine navigates her way through a world that teaches her about feminism as well as fanaticism, with sidelong glances at Marx, Islam and punk. The Marjane of the film begins as a strange hybrid of Little Lulu and Bart Simpson, or maybe Kay Thompson's Eloise let loose on the streets of Tehran instead of the halls of the Ritz-Carlton. By the end of the film, she's gone through a revolution, depression, rebellion and confusion, but she's on the way to finding herself. We know from the very existence of first an inspired book and now this inspired visual adaptation that her journey was a success. | Robert Hunt

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