Drawn outside the lines
Cartoon adaptation tells young Iranian's story
They're both tales of growing up in the shadow of Islamic fundamentalism, but "Persepolis" is everything "The Kite Runner" is not. It's a personal memoir rather than fiction, coolly observant instead of melodramatic, female rather than male in sensibility and sense of humor - it has a sense of humor - and, oh yes, based on a comic book ("graphic novel," insist the tastemakers) and animated for the screen rather than filmed with live actors.
For all that, "Persepolis" is the more vibrant, inarguable work - a tale of a girl who exiles herself from her country because her country has exiled itself from the modern world. Riotously comic in parts and heartbreaking in others, this is a small epic of survival made universal through unexpected pop style. It's a reminder, too, that animation is still more than digitized fast food.
The country is Iran, and the girl is Marjane Satrapi, who wrote and drew the original two volumes of "Persepolis," first published in France in 2000, and has co-directed the film with fellow illustrator Vincent Paronnaud. When the story begins in the late 1970s, the shah is still in power. Little Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) is the daughter of upper-class intellectuals and already a force to be reckoned with. She has regular bedtime chats with God about her future as a prophet, for one thing.
"Persepolis" sees the ensuing revolution and disaster of radical theocracy - the coming of the mullahs - through the eyes of a cantankerous, increasingly worried child. It's "The 400 Blows" viewed from behind a veil and drawn with a graceful, ironic black-and-white pen. Satrapi knows the cruelties children are capable of when they imitate the grown-ups, and she also understands the follies of adults. One of the film's more touching figures is a beloved communist uncle (Francois Jerosme) jailed by the shah and naively certain the ayatollah is just a passing fad.
As freedoms and acquaintances disappear, courtesy of the new regime, the adolescent Marjane (now voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) rebels the only way she can: by rocking out with furtive passion. She hides black-market Iron Maiden cassettes under her burka; she mouths off to her teachers. Saddam Hussein next door starts a war, and the boys of Iran are encouraged to enlist as martyrs, the government handing out plastic toy keys to get them into heaven. Marjane's mother (Catherine Deneuve) and father (Simon Abkarian) pack her off to a French school in Vienna.
At this point, "Persepolis" becomes a different and more familiar coming-of-age tale, that of an expatriate defining herself against complacent European hippies. The storytelling is still rich and funny - Satrapi's anecdotes about her rich anarchist pals have snap and there's some grand Cubist slapstick involving her changing body - but the narrative is specific without being quite as special.
The film picks up again when Marjane becomes burned out on Euro-hedonism and returns to Iran in the late 1980s. She finds a people that have made peace with their fundamentalist masters by caving in, a society where the few rebellions are small and unprofound. Caught between two cultures and belonging to neither, the heroine slips into a worsening funk.
If there's a savior, it's her grandmother, a caustic cosmopolitan who reminds Marjane that civilization begins with treating other people well. The voice of the older woman is that of the legendary French actress Danielle Darrieux, now 89, and it carries the weight of someone who has outlasted history. There's also a pleasing continuity in casting Darrieux, the equally iconic Deneuve, and Deneuve's daughter Mastroianni as three generations of the same family. An English-language version has been recorded with Deneuve, Mastroianni, Gena Rowlands as the grandmother, Sean Penn as the father, and Iggy Pop as Uncle Anoush, but it has yet to be released theatrically and may only surface on DVD. (I'm not making this up.)
"Persepolis" is absurdly entertaining while asking age-old questions about identity and homeland, as well as grimly modern questions about life under a religious dictatorship. (It'll be an eye-opener for older American kids, I suspect.) These are filtered through sardonic feminism and the immediacy of good comic art. The drawing is simple without ever being crude, and Satrapi's line is thick and sure, at times womanly; at other moments, she jabs with the force of punk.
It's a jolt, too, to find old-fashioned, hand-drawn animation surviving into the present day. Technically, "Persepolis" can't compare to the modern pixel movies; artistically, it shames them. Satrapi and Paronnaud have fashioned something rough-hewn and real, with a narrative authority that has fallen out of use in our pre-digested digital age. This, they're saying, is how you're supposed to tell a story - by bearing witness and refusing to skimp on the details. This is how you start a revolution.