“Persepolis” – A.J. Hakari

A common misconception that I’ve encountered is that if a film is animated, it has to be for children. This isn’t to say that kids wouldn’t be better off seeing something a little more mature, but when people say this, they often mean that animation is a realm reserved solely for the likes of singing animals and talking sponges. There’s no real reason why the French feature Persepolis had to be in cartoon format, as its premise is one that could have just as easily been executed in live-action. But the point is that it works anyway and does so even more successfully than if it actually had live actors, a testament to how just a switch in storytelling styles can enhance the emotional power of an already touching tale.

Based on a series of autobiographical graphic novels by Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis begins in the Iran of the late 1970s. While certain citizens lament their lives under the rule of the Shah, they’re pretty much left to their own devices as far as leading their lives. This includes Marjane’s family, a clan of spry and free-spirited folk whose rebellious nature has also been adopted by Marjane, a little girl who would rather spend her time worshipping Bruce Lee over going to school. But the fateful day comes when Iran’s political power shifts, as the Shah is ousted from office and replaced by a fundamentalist Islamic government, one that almost instantly represses the sort of freedoms those like the Satrapis had been able to enjoy. Sensing that Marjane’s stubborn attitude may end up getting her in hot water, her family sends her to Vienna for a good education, though her experiences there only serve to fuel her quest to discover who she really is and to find a place where she truly belongs.

Persepolis has attracted quite a bit of controversy for itself, having been banned in certain countries for its political content. But those expecting the film to be a condemnation of extreme Islamic policies are in for a rude awakening, for Persepolis is not a film with such grand aims in mind (nor is its way of showing societal faults limited to the fundamentalist regime). It is, however, the story of a girl, interrupted, thrust back and forth between two worlds just as she’s attempting to find her place in either one. Marjane isn’t out to change the world or turn the increasingly repressive decrees of her home country on their ear; all she wants is to play air guitar, smoke a couple of cigarettes, and listen to Iron Maiden tapes without being persecuted for it. Persepolis should be commended for bringing to light problems in Iran that viewers at least on this side of the pond may not be entirely familiar with. But it’s Marjane who remains the film’s driving force, her struggle between fitting in and being her own spunky self proving to be a most fascinating journey.

In fact, it’s almost better that Persepolis was animated. The film’s visual sense has a playful side to it, providing some humorously exaggerated moments (such as when Marjane goes through a mighty big growth spurt) that reminds viewers of the film’s humanity, which might have been otherwise buried underneath the story’s darker themes. That aside, the animation just looks fantastic, switching between a lush black-and-white for Marjane’s past and a delicate but effective use of colors for a few brief scenes set in the present day. The voice work is also spot-on, with the highlights being Gabrielle Lopes’s feisty take on young Marjane and none other than Catherine Deneuve as Marjane’s supportive mother. My complaints about the film are few, aside from its glaring tendency to sort of rush through certain periods in Marjane’s life, missing the chance to capitalize on potential dramatic effect (not to mention ending on a logical but fairly anticlimactic note).

Persepolis isn’t a traditional animated film by any means, but that doesn’t make it any less worth watching. At a time when the most prominent role models for the modern girl are Hannah Montana and the Bratz dolls, Persepolis serves as a more wise alternative, teaching young ladies to develop their own personalities and think for themselves, as opposed to inducting them into the mindless, Bedazzled masses.

Rating: ★★★½

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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