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Crowd pleaser” isn’t exactly the phrase that comes to mind when one hears a description of Persepolis: It’s a black-and-white animated film, largely in French, about an Iranian girl forced to live in exile when things in her native country get too tumultuous. Her leftist parents force her to live abroad not so much because the climate is dangerous—though it is—but because Marjane seems to lack a censor button when it comes to voicing her opinions and generally doing as she wishes. Little Marjane is too spunky for her own good.
An art-house cartoon about war and revolution as seen through the eyes of a potential Blossom, though, is more than just unique—it’s rich, eye-catching, educational, and, yes, crowd-pleasing, both in its engaging narrative and charming, ultimately relatable heroine. Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes as a child and Chiara Mastroianni as a teen and adult) represents Marjane Satrapi, who wrote the graphic novels on which Persepolis is based, and who co-wrote and directed the film with Vincent Paronnaud. Satrapi was struggling as a children’s-book author when she decided to commit her life story to paper. The first volume of Persepolis—the title refers to an ancient capital of the Persian Empire, now in ruins—was published in 2000.
The film is bursting with politics, but at heart it’s a coming-of-age tale. It starts at the end: Marjane is sitting at a French airport, smoking a cigarette and hesitant to begin her second exile from Iran. A voice-over in which Marjane tells us that she remembers her early years as “peaceful and uneventful” takes us back to 1978 and a little girl with a bit of a God complex. She not only talks to the Big Guy—Satrapi animates the Almighty as a sort of friendly, anthropomorphic cloud—she tells everyone that she’s going to be a prophet. She idolizes Bruce Lee (“The dragon’s revenge is a dish best served cold!” she rather adorably growls to guests at a cocktail party) and, for a brief period, the shah, because her teachers told her that he’d been chosen by God. Her parents (Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian) are initially horrified, but Dad gently changes her mind by telling her the truth about their government’s history in uncomplicated yet unsanitized terms. The scene is exquisite: “Shhhh,” he says, his tone as soft as an old blanket while the background goes to ink and the shah’s origins play out in puppet-theater form.
While Persepolis is simply drawn—a few strokes define each character’s face and dress—several sequences are stunning, such as a battle in which combatants are silhouetted and surrounded by fog, their blood flowing black. Most of the time, though, you forget about the animation; Marjane’s story is the centerpiece. The script follows her through her adolescence, spent mostly in Vienna, where she meets punk-loving nihilists (“Life is a void,” one says as he rolls a joint), suffers embarrassing growth spurts (one of the funniest sequences shows parts of Marjane’s body supersizing randomly), and learns about love (her first sexual experience couldn’t have gone more wrong).
Persepolis’ strength is its universality. Few of us will ever know what it’s like to live without freedom, witness violence on a daily basis, or be forced to leave home, but most viewers will have gone through identity crises, separation anxiety, the see-sawing exhilaration and dread of reaching your 20s and realizing you don’t know which way to turn. At the same time, though, Satrapi manages not to sugarcoat or forget Iran’s upheaval; it’s as integral to who Marjane is as the bootlegged Iron Maiden tapes that kept her sane as a teen. The author’s brilliance is in humanizing the story’s politics, allowing its reality to sidle up to you instead of taking the frying-pan-to-the-head approach that’s wearying to current news consumers.