J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Coming Soon: Persepolis

Take heart, there are some very good movies set to release soon, and believe it or not, one of them is actually based on a graphic novel. While many live-action adaptations, like V for Vendetta with its immature nihilism, come across as juvenile, the animated Persepolis (trailer here), has some serious and very grown-up insights to offer.

Based on the graphic novels of Marjane Satrapi, and directed by her and her colleague in comic art, Vincent Paronnaud, Persepolis chronicles its creator’s turbulent coming of age years, both in post-revolutionary Iran, and while living in exile in Austria. Like Kite Runner, a good portion of Persepolis is told through an extended flashback, as Satrapi waits for the flight that will return her to Iran after years away. Through her eyes, we see the Islamic Revolution unfold, soon followed by the horrors of the Iran-Iraq War, and then her often chaotic European sojourn.

Though her family despised the Shah, they quickly recognize the new regime will be worse. Satrapi and her mother (voiced by Catherine Deneuve) suddenly find themselves forced to wear the veil. Sometimes the Islamist policies seem absurd, as when the older Satrapi, now in art school, finds herself sketching a model in a shapeless Burkha. However, there is nothing amusing for the young protagonist when she visits her beloved uncle in prison, understanding full well it is to be the last time she will see him alive.

The animated Satrapi is a natural rebel. She is attracted to western style hard rock, finding subversive freedom in the music (echoing the sentiments of Tom Stoppard’s Rock ‘n’ Roll). She is not afraid to argue a point when fed a line of propaganda by her teachers which is contradicted by her own experiences. That independent spirit would prove dangerous in the Ayatollah’s Iran, leading her parents to send her abroad for her protection.

Animated in the style of its source material, almost entirely in black and white, Persepolis presents a compelling vision. Quirky and sometimes dark, Satrapi’s characters at times suggest a restrained Charles Adams. Persepolis often grapples with some meaty political issues, like the role of women in Islamic society. Yet, at its core Persepolis is a family story.

Like real life, Persepolis is episodic in nature. Some sequences are more interesting than others, but several are brilliantly powerful. Particularly effective are the scenes of Satrapi and her grandmother (voiced by Danielle Darrieux), who teaches her granddaughter honor (particularly when living under oppression) and helps Satrapi make important decisions, through the example of her own free-spirited life.

The title Persepolis refers to the seat of the ancient Persian Empire (thank you production notes), nodding to Iran’s ancient legacy of learned culture. Tragically, the government of Iran today allows no place for the talents of a free thinker like Satrapi. To their credit, the French do enough to have nominated Persepolis as their official selection for the 2007 Academy Awards’ best foreign language film. It is a worthy selection—a dramatic vision of growing up in a country gone mad. It opens Christmas Day in New York at the Angelika.

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