Saturday, June 30, 2007

Persepolis: Sometimes Things Are Black and White

I have written quite a bit on this blog about Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, both the four-volume comic book that has been a huge international success, chalking up over one-and-a-half-million sales, and the animated film version which she has herself directed, together with fellow comics artists Vincent Paronnaud. The film has just been released and I was pleased to see that it is more than a simple slavish adaptation of the book.

For those unfamiliar with the book, Persepolis is the autobiographical tale of Satrapi growing up at the time of the Iranian revolution, in a communist family that also had royal heritage. As for many liberal, left-wing Iranians, the Satrapis saw their initial joy at the overthrow of the Shah quickly evaporate with the rise to power of the Mullahs, who foisted a viciously demented totalitarianism culled from the Dark Ages on a country that already had one foot in the modern age. Satrapi's uncle, an activist with Tudeh, the Iranian Communist Party, who had already been imprisoned and tortured under the Shah saw his complaisance at the coming to power of the Islamists rewarded with first imprisonment and then execution.

There then follows the Iran-Iraq war, waged by two squalidly despotic regimes, in which one million people needlessly perished. The war is refracted through tales of Marjane's childhood friends coming from back from the front forever altered and the deaths of neighbours in Iraqi airstrikes. When the feisty teenage Marjane begins to question her teachers' indoctrination too loudly, her parents send her off to the French Lycée in Vienna for her own safety, a wise move considering how the Islamists had few qualms about executing dissident schoolchildren, taking the trouble to rape them so as to circumvent the Koranic prohibition on subjecting virgins to capital punishment.

In Vienna, in the 1980s she encounters Europeans with dismayingly one-dimensional views of her country and following a number of fallings-out with people she ends up sleeping rough and almost dying, something which her own parents never found out until the publication of volume three of he comic. She returns to Iran to brave a country where ordinary people are forever at the mercy of the dour, viciously puritanical Moral Police. After a failed marriage she decides to move to France, where she still lives, her international success having made a return to Tehran impossible while the current regime remains in power.

Part of the success of Satrapi's work is the simple, almost child-like line of her two-tone drawings, which feature clunky, cartoonish people, which she herself claims is a result of being forced to draw life studies in art school in Tehran of models absurdly draped in full-length chadors (something which is alluded to in one scene in the film). The film elaborates on this style, introducing more shade for the sequences depicting the revolution and the subsequent war. The model Satrapi and Paronnaud followed was German expression, which is suitable on a poltical as well as aesthetic level, considering how many of the UFA filmmakers had to flee on the Nazis' assumption of power. They also based the family sequences on Italian neo-realism, which carry a recognisable stamp of Rosselini, de Sica and early Visconti, and offer an equally brilliant condensing of the political climate of the time. Both Satrapi's parents (voiced by Simon Abkarian and Catherine Deneuve) are admirable characters but the real scene-stealer is the outspoken, opium-smoking grandmother with the voice of veteran French actress Danielle Daressieu.

Marjane herself is played by Deneuve's real-life daughter Chiara Mastroianni, and she is the same ballsy, likeable and occasionally infuriating woman and girl that appears in the comic. The film is often funny, rarely passing up an opportunity to ridicule the lethal God-fearing nonsense of the Mullahs but many of the scenes are also devastating, from the very beginning, when the adult Marjane puts on her chador at Orly airport (instantly attracting derision from a French bystander) in order to board a flight home. Satrapi never allows us to lose sight of the tragedy of the revolution that was betrayed and crushed by a crowd of fundamentalist madmen, yet there is also a complete lack of the sentimentalism that often mars such accounts of exile. Persepolis the film, like the comic that preceeded it, is a moving, indispensable portrait of a country with a formidable civilisation that has lived a nightmarish existence for the past fifty years, and it is a fitting companion piece to the courageous work of Jafar Panahi, among others, in offering a view of Iran that will challenge the preconceptions of many in the West.

It looks like being huge too, if the queues that prevented me from seeing it on its opening day are anything to go by. It is due to released later in the year in an English-language version (it is produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall - Spielberg's regular producers) and should be guaranteed large audiences. Not to be missed.