A great coming-of-age story is primarily a personal document of one person’s experience in making that tricky transition from childhood to maturity, and naturally specific to a time and a place, but it must also be sufficiently universal in its themes that it can be in some way related to by the majority of the audience. This big-screen adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s massively popular graphic novel achieves that perfect balance between these two, pinning the story of a young girl’s awakening to the world against the very specific backdrop of the Iranian Revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war.
The bulk of the film is told in flashback, and as such is rather episodic in its structure, though it does retain a strict adherence to chronology. Our frame of reference is the older Marjane, now in Paris, sitting in Orly airport remembering her childhood days. In 1978 she is a precocious young girl growing up in Tehran; ‘back then I had a quiet life, a little girl’s life’. It is the dog days of the Shah regime, and state kidnappings and murders are frequent. But while her parents are anxious about what the future holds for them, for the young Marjane these exciting events are hold a certain glamour – when she hears about how some prisoners are tortured, this becomes jokingly referenced in the games she and her friends play.
It is only until the Islamists begin to take charge of the country that the young girl begins personally to feel what is happening; her beloved uncle is taken as a political prisoner and murdered, the subsequent war with Iraq means air-raids are common, and the new regime begins to clampdown on many of the freedoms that had been enjoyed in what was the Middle East’s most moderate Muslim country. Alcohol is forbidden, women must shround their faces away and not wear makeup, and unmarried girls must not be seen to be walking around with men.
In this climate of new restrictions, the young Marjane attempts to assert her personality: walking around in trainers and a ‘Punk’s Not Dead’ stencilled jacket, and in one particularly funny scene going to a series of shady black-market traders to procure that most illicit of contraband: an Iron Maiden tape. When it becomes too dangerous for her to stay in Iran, she is sent to Vienna, where she enjoys considerably more room to foster her interests and fraternise with people her own age, but she is always conscious of her alien status as an outsider to her new European buddies.
Everyone when they are growing up feels a certain degree of isolation, that no-one else could possibly understand what you are feeling and going through. And many of the insecurities and new pressures that our feisty young protagonist goes through are universal: a growing awareness of pubescent changes to her body, for example, is illustrated in one marvellously comic interlude, most unflattering parts of her anatomy being grotesquely expanded out of all proportion. Similarly her increasing awareness of the opposite sex, and realising the blindness of young love.
The political background to the film is what gives it its personal stamp. In starting off as a restless and imaginative young girl, Marjane’s transformation into the jaded expatriate is especially poignant, underlined by the juxtapositions offered by the flashback structure. The slow shift from the wide-eyed, if naive, optimism to weary resignation weaves together the two strands of personal and political effortlessly – here, it is politics and political systems which have exiled our protagonist, forever destroying the Iran of her childhood, and undoubtedly that of many others.
The film’s visual style is a significant point to examine, in terms of providing its cinematic qualities. On could argue that, to take a recent example, cartoons such as The Simpsons Movie (2007) are unable to entirely successfully make the leap from the small screen to the big screen, as there is nothing particularly ‘cinematic’ about what it is portraying. Conversely, something as cine-literate as Team America: World Police (2004) showed that even Thunderbirds-style marionettes can play well in the movie theatre, as long as there was sufficient care in creating spectacle. In Persepolis, the animators have been careful to construct the latter, rather than the former. The stark, jagged black-and-white shapes that make up the bulk of the film are in the Expressionist tradition, and deserve to be seen projected.
A quick note about dubbing; there are two versions circulating in English-speaking countries; the original French and an English dub. While the English dub is well done – featuring the talents of Iggy Pop, Gena Rowlands and Sean Penn alongside the original voice cast members Chiara Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve – the French is infinitely more preferable. Anyone who has seen a Hayao Miyazaki film in both English and Japanese knows that the original language of an animation works so much better.