Hollywood conventional wisdom goes that you always want to see the same thing repeated that you liked before. But it stands to reason that someone has to do something creative first, before it can be diluted, repeated, and repackaged. Perhaps there is nothing new under the sun, but when a distinctive film arrives, its a bracing breath of fresh air. Such is the case with Marjane Satrapi's autobiopic Persepolis (co-directed by Vincent Paronnaud), an affecting and quite funny adaptation of Satrapi's graphic novels about growing up Iranian.
In 1978 Tehran, little Marji looks up with wide eyes at a family that tries to keep smiling in a culture of repression and political unrest. Her head full of school-inflicted, Shah-touting propaganda gets realigned by her dapper uncle Anoushe (Francois Jerosme), shortly before he's whisked away to prison. Though she fancies herself a future prophet (or, in other words, an artist), it will be some years before she understands the greater consequences of her new cheer—"Down with the Shah!'—secret parties with bootleg alcohol (remembered as "the only freedom we had left"), and the air raids that take apart her community. With the '80s and puberty comes exile to Vienna, where the grown Marjane (Chiara Mastroianni) will be officially schooled—and informally schooled in the ups and downs of relationships. By the '90s, Iran too is like a hopeful and ever-jilted lover: the more things change, the more they stay the same.
Marjane recalls of her peers, "We were so eager for happiness, we forgot we weren't free." But here are the memories of the Islamic Revolution and its cover-ups: the scowls through shrouds of severely disapproving elders—hilariously mirrored in the habit-swaddled nuns at her Vienna school—and the absurdity of an anatomy drawing class where the model is a shrouded, featureless lump ("The veil stands for freedom!" one teacher sputters). Nothing could be more vexing to a girl with an evolving taste for french fries, Bruce Lee movies and Western music (the Bee Gees giving way to Iron Maiden). The comforting constant, though often separated by space, is family: her mother (Catherine Deneuve), father (Simon Abkarian), and grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), with the latter an irrepressible feminist role model.
In any form, the material would be affecting, but as an animated film, Persepolis proves especially powerful. Satrapi and Paronnaud train poetic eyes for detail on each defining moment, with the past (the majority of the film) rendered in chiaroscuro tones. The more monumental the event depicted feels to Marjane, the more stark and direct the animation, as in silhouetted depictions of warfare and dreamscape reveries. The visual power in relating the personal and the political past has been compared to Art Spiegelman's Maus, though with a great deal more sun breaking through the clouds. Who, after all, can resist a conversation between God and Karl Marx, or a spontaneous music video to "Eye of the Tiger" performed creakily by a newly resolved Marjane? The childhood segments are equally subversive, a spin on Peanuts that's considerably more political—with apologies to Charles Schultz—than quaffing a few beers with Bill Mauldin.
Persepolis is so satisfying because it works on a few complimentary levels: as a coming-of-age story tracking innocence to experience, as an accounting of revolutionary and feminist struggles, and as an artful visual experience in cartoon form. Satrapi's experiences include trying as a little girl to wrap her head around her world, and trying as a politically charged young adult to live with fundamentalist Islamic repression. By picture's end, Marjane has learned lonely lessons: that she may never feel as if she truly belongs anywhere, at home or abroad, and that "Freedom always has a price." (Sony later released a dubbed version with the voices of Gena Rowlands and Sean Penn, but the film's original form is preferred.)
At last, Persepolis—one of the best films of 2007—arrives on home video, on Blu-Ray and DVD. In addition to a gleamingly clear transfer and full-bodied sound, the special edition includes a number of noteworthy extras. The subtitled doc "The Hidden Side of Persepolis" (30:17) is an all-access tour of the animation studio where the film was produced, with comments by Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud, Chiara Matroianni, Danielle Darrieux, animator Benoît Meurzec, animation director Christina Désmares, director of assistant animators Thierry Pérès, chief tracer Frank Miyet, director of set design Marisa Musy, foley artist Philippe Penot. Best of all, we get to see all of the above (and Simon Abkarian and Gabrielle Lopès) at work.
"Behind the Scenes of Persepolis" (8:39) is a more standard-issue featurette made on this side of the Atlantic. Here we find Satrapi, Mastroianni, editor Stephane Roche, and two of the American celebrity voice artists: Gena Rowlands and Iggy Pop. Selected Scene Commentaries offer a few insights on three scenes: "Marjane Satrapi on the Opening Scene" (3:05), discussing the reasoning behind the uses of color and black and white ; "Chiara Mastroianni on the 'Eye of the Tiger' Scene" (1:45), and "Vincent Paronnaud on the Vienna Scene" (1:25). Animated Scene Comparisons (10:56 with a "Play All" option) are deleted/unused segments, each with commentary by Satrapi, in storyboard/animatic form: "After the Bombing" (1:50), "Depression" (5:37), "The Wedding" (1:53), and "Animation Test" (1:54). Lastly, SOny includes trailers for The Jane Austen Book Club, The Other Boleyn Girl, Saawariya, and Steep.
This one's not just for animation aficionados: seek it out without fail.
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