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Persepolis
cast: Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, and Danielle Darrieux

directors: Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi

92 minutes (15) 2007
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Optimum DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 9/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
I am not what you might call an emotional audience. As a critic, a lot of the media I experience is consumed either with an article in mind or as the basis for some future piece I may or may not decide to write. As a result, I find myself in a similar situation to the comedian Billy Crystal who once pointed out that comedians do not laugh at jokes; they simply smile and acknowledge that the joke works. In other words, my primary means of engagement with art is not emotional but cerebral and my tendency to dissect and analyse has resulted even in more intelligent films sometimes feeling manipulative and contrived. This is not a problem I have had with Persepolis. I have now seen this film twice, once in its dubbed version and once in its original French and both times I was profoundly moved. Persepolis' tale of a young girl growing up in Iran is a work of such artistic elegance and integrity that it is close to flawless.

The film begins with Marjane 'Marji' Satrapi living as a young child in the final days of the Shah. The child of cosmopolitan and clearly wealthy and educated parents, Marji is obsessed with Bruce Lee and always willing to ask questions of her elders. When the Shah's regime starts to fall, Marji finds herself implicated in the politics of the era as family members are released from prison, bringing tales of the fight for freedom straight to her bedside. When the revolution turns bad and the new theocratic government starts to oppress its own people, Marji is fully aware of what is going on and helps her parents work around the new public morality laws. However, Marji's parents soon realise that Marji's future in Iran is likely to be far less rosy than it would be in less misogynistic cultures and so she is shipped off to Austria where she tries to fit in unsuccessfully, becoming more and more unhappy in the process until she eventually winds up living on the streets. After nearly dying of bronchitis, Marji returns to Iran where she slumps into a deep depression before attending university and eventually getting married to the wrong man, prompting her to get divorced and to again leave the country.

Visually the film is striking. Mostly in black and white, it blends Satrapi's down to earth style with more fantastical and inventive moments that draw from traditional Iranian art and more modern sources, to shift seamlessly between impressionistic visual spectacle and intimate emotional scenes, in which Satrapi's minimalist characters convey a world of feeling and humanity with an arched eyebrow or a slump of the shoulders. This shifting back and forth between intimate realism and fantastical spectacle beautifully captures the sense of normal people living through times that are so shocking and disturbing that they frequently seem surreal. It is also the film's central mechanic.

The film is initially set during the Islamic revolution that got rid of the Shah and the Iran-Iraq war that claimed a million dead as the purged and incompetent Iranian army sent wave after wave of their young men to be killed by an Iraqi military armed by the west with chemical weapons. Given the topicality of the this subject matter as well as Satrapi's closeness to the events, you would expect the film to come out with a strong antiwar message or to serve as some kind of platform for Satrapi's political beliefs, but that is not what Persepolis is about. Having grown up in a climate where ideology frequently lead to executions and misery, Satrapi has chosen to keep the focus of Persepolis on the human elements. In one particularly important scene, Marji is confronted by her wealthy western friends' apathy about the political process and she exclaims that politics is important, people die for it and it is perhaps because of this that Persepolis refuses to offer us any trite messages about the dangers of religious fundamentalism or totalitarian government; politics is too important for triteness.

Persepolis shows the realities of life under a totalitarian government with considerable style as it manages to capture the fact that such governments can be comical in their foolishness, but this stupidity is also absolutely terrifying when it is aimed at you. This duality is perfectly captured in a scene where the women of the university are lectured about their immodest clothing styles. Marji stands up and points out that all the women are veiled while the men are wandering about in ball-hugging white trousers but, though Marji is undeniably right and undeniably scored a victory by pointing out the masculine hypocrisy, she is also venturing into dangerous territory as the student leaders who lecture her come to look a lot like the bearded Revolutionary Guardsmen, who would later cause someone to fall off a roof after chasing him down for the hideous crime of going to a party where there were unmarried women. This duality is also captured in a scene where Marji deflects attention from her make-up onto a man who happened to look at her arse. She laughs when she tells her grandmother what she did but her grandmother is horrified as Marji fingered an innocent in order to protect herself, thereby reinforcing the arbitrary and brutal nature of the Iranian regime.

Persepolis works as a film by refusing to concentrate overly on the ideological issues or upon the emotional issues and so the film switches back and forth between politics and human drama without ever falling into the preachiness or the sentimentalism that both of those poles can lead to. Indeed, the film's viewpoint, halfway between human interest and grand politics is arguably the ideal position for a feminist take upon modern Iran as it fails to accept that the male-dominated political arena is the only one of import, while equally refusing to be backed into the "women's world" of domesticity. The fact that Persepolis is a feminist work is also evident from the fact that the story's central authority figure, as well as role model for Marji, is not her romantic revolutionary uncle or her pragmatic father but her glamorous and worldly grandmother, who not only knows how to survive under a totalitarian government, but also knows how to protect her integrity and her identity against those who would paint her as a defenceless woman.

The characterisation in Persepolis is also pitch perfect, which means that the film's moments of emotion are deeply affecting not because of strategic scoring or sentimentalist imagery, but because we know and care about the characters and cannot help but empathise with them. This is another area in which Satrapi's storytelling skill is impressive as, aside from switching back and forth between the political and the personal, the film also beautifully switches between the comic and the tragic, again without letting the film fall into either category for more than the odd few scenes, after which the tone is switched and the story sets off again in a different direction.

Having said this, it is undeniable that the second half of Persepolis is weaker than the first. Once Marji returns to Teheran, the balance between the personal and the substantial wobbles resulting in the film taking on a far more personal autobiographical feel that seems to end with 'and then I got divorced and moved to France.' When compared with the masterful storytelling of the first half, this feels a touch under-whelming and I can't help but think that it might have made for a better film to end it with Marji's initial return to Iran. This would also have avoided the feeling that the film repeats itself with Marji trying to fit in, failing and then moving to another country. But this is down to the fact that Persepolis is autobiographical and people's lives tend not to fit into nice neat narrative arcs.

Minor quibbles aside, Persepolis is undeniably one of the strongest films of 2007 and it genuinely demonstrates how powerful animation can be as a medium if it is allowed to deal with more substantial matters. Persepolis is a true gem and it is entirely deserving of the plaudits that have been heaped at its feet.
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