Persepolis is an animated movie based on a graphic novel of the same name by Marjane Satrapi. Based on her own experiences, Satrapi herself co-wrote and co-directed the movie alongside Vincent Paronnaud, bringing her style of illustration to the big screen. The movie tells Satrapi’s own story, that of a young girl growing up in Tehran, the capital of Iran. The film begins with her as a young woman sitting in a Parisian airport, considering getting on a plane to Iran. As she sits in the waiting lounge, she thinks back and the story of her childhood is told, revealing why she is unable to return.
The events of Persepolis begin in 1978 when Marji, as her family call her, is just a little girl who wants to grow up to be a great prophet, or alternatively, Bruce Lee. She doesn’t really understand the political situation, declaring her love of the Shah on the grounds that he was appointed by God, much to the horror of her left-wing parents who are involved in the protests that hope to see him overthrown.
Persepolis then sees Marji and her friends inevitably overhear their families’ conversations about the kind of oppression taking place it leads to some funny, if unsettling scenes in which they play at torturing, or seek prestige from having the family member who is the longest-serving political prisoner. The adult world viewed through their childish perspectives is beautifully realised.
Any rejoicing that takes place in the household after the Shah’s overthrow is quickly replaced by dismay when hardline Islamic fundamentalists gain power, led by Ayotollah Khomeini, and a series of restrictive laws come into place, such as the requirement to wear the hijab. Marji’s hero, Uncle Anoush (oddly enough, voiced by Iggy Pop in the English version) is arrested due to his Communist ideology “ and is crushed by the outcome of what he hoped to be a more liberating revolution. Anoush dies in prison, but his words about the importance of holding on to your beliefs and sense of self are not forgotten by Marji.
Persepolis then sees the Iran-Iraq war break out. This means Marji must deal with domestic oppression and bombing raids alongside the normal difficulties of being a teenager. Never one to seek out a quiet life, Marji dabbles with punk and undertakes the risky business of getting hold of Western music. Eventually her parents decide that the safest thing is for her to go to Europe, and she moves to Vienna.
The remainder of the movie chronicles her time in Europe and her feelings of outsiderhood, growing more and more desperate for a return to home, trying to retain a sense of herself and her past while despairing of the situation in her homeland. When she does later return, after things go sour in Vienna, she finds it no more suited to her temperament than she had when younger, and ultimately returns to Europe.
Persepolis is both a personal story of one girl’s growth into adulthood under difficult cisrcumstances, and a brief history of Iran in the twentieth century. Marji is a fully rounded, character, spiky and difficult (Satrapi is aware of her own flaws), but admirable in her refusal to buckle under. She also clearly loves her homeland while lamenting what has become of it. As someone who is fairly ignorant of the political situation, I found the historical elements fascinating. When discussing the history of Iran, the animation style tends to become like an old fashioned shadow puppet show.
These segments aside, the style of imagery and animation is very much in keeping with the source graphic novel “ if you were to pick up the book after, the characters would be instantly recognisable from the movie. The majority of the movie is black and white, changing into colour for the events in present day Paris. One minor criticism of the film is that it perhaps doesn’t fully exploit the possibilities of the medium “ it seems to be a fairly straightforward adaptation, although the segues between past and present, reality and fantasy are seamlessly and cleverly done.