Saturday, September 08, 2007

TIFF 2007 Review: "Persepolis"

(Special Presentations)
(France, 2007)
Written by: Marjane Satrapi, based upon her graphic novels
Directed by: Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi
Cast/Voices: Gabrielle Lopes, Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Simon Abkarian, Danielle Darrieux

Three perfectly fine words--“coming” “of” “age”—never fail to make me shudder when they appear together, especially come film fest season, where previous Tadpoles and Thumbsuckers have sulked and shrugged their way before my equally slumped form more times than I care to remember. With quality film equipment becoming less expensive and more attainable, isn’t now the time for a moratorium on the rambling, period-song-heavy paean to the disaffected, overeducated adolescent outsider and the quirky, clueless adults that don’t understand them? Write what you know is fine advice for the aspiring auteur, sure, but remember what William Goldman said: “Star Wars wasn’t written by a Wookie.”

So it’s a relief, then, that Marjane’s Satrapi’s tale of her own turbulent adolescence, Persepolis, is like no roman à clef you’ve ever seen. The tween years Satrapi revisits are a far cry from today’s usual Sundance fare:

Tehran, 1978. Precocious and exhaustingly inquisitive Marjane (Gabrielle Lopes) is the only child of educated, upper middle-class parents parents Tadji (Catherine Deneuve) and Ebi (Simon Abkarian), who have raised her encouraging her independence and creativity, defiant of the U.S.-backed Shah dictatorship. Living with them is her widowed, cynical grandmother (Danielle Darrieux) who bestows on her granddaughter advice and wisdom as if she were much older than eight.

When the Shah’s government collapses, there is elation across Iran and within the Satrapi household and extended family who anticipate a new era of equality and progress. But instead, the new Khomeneini Islamic Revolution rules with an even tighter fist, especially towards women, with headscarves becoming mandatory, subservience to men enforced by squads of police, and intellectual thought in both sexes all but extinguished. Friends and relatives, like her pro-Communist uncle, are imprisoned or simply disappear. In 1980 Iraq launches an attack on Iran and begins an eight-year war.

Although aware of the horrors, Marjane manages to live as close to a normal kid’s life as possible, with chief pursuits being the acquisition of contraband record albums by Western artists (Bee Gees, ABBA, Iron Maiden), and worshipping her hero Bruce Lee.
Marjane’s parents consider moving to America, but her father rejects the notion ("So I can become a taxi driver and you a cleaning lady?"). So at 13, they send her off to school in Vienna (now voiced by Chiara Mastroianni), where she finds her instructors there hopelessly devoted to their own intolerant dogma, and a subculture of fashionably disaffected punks whose easy cynicism is in the service of nothing. She falls in love with a sensitive blonde dreamboat, only to have her heart broken. And because of her Iranian heritage, she is branded an outsider and potential menace and soonj finds herself living on the streets of Europe.

Ten years after she left, Marjane returns home, where the situtation hasn’t improved much. She enlists in college, marries a chauvinistic layabout, and eventually flees again for permanent residence in France.

I should mention, too, that Persepolis is an animated film, with a clean, monochromatic hand-drawn style (with some colour in the framing sequences) that more or less faithfully translates the stark but evocative panels of the four-part graphic novel (first published in 2000) to the screen. The tale has been streamlined somewhat to focus primarily on Marjane’s experiences, but it’s laudable that much recent history is communicated through dialogue and the girl’s often detached observations of her once-comfortable existence going mad.

This is France-based Sapji’s first film (which also took the Prize Of The Jury at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, the first animated film to achieve such an honour since Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet in 1973), in collaboration with fellow illustrator Vincent Paronnaud, and for novices the results are accomplished to say the least, successfully blending candid biography with breathtaking flights of fancy and sequences of grim reality that recall the dreamy tapestries of Sendak and McCay but also the Japanese anti-war classics Barefoot Gen and Grave Of The Fireflies.

For such heavy and frequently heartbreaking subject matter, the film is often uproariously funny: particular memorable are Marjane's demanding chats with God and Karl Marx (both resplendently bearded and ineffectual), Marjane's Duck Amuckish rubbery growth spurt into adolescence, the models in Marjane’s art class forced to wear concealing burkas, and a training montage set to Marjane's rendition of Survivor’s “Eye Of The Tiger” (here's a clip).

Predictably, the government of Iran has already denounced the film, claiming it to be “an unreal picture of the outcomes and achievements of the Islamic revolution". And Thailand has already caved to pressure from Iran and pulled the film from their upcoming Bangkok International Film Festival. But the West—chiefly the U.S.--hardly gets off easy here, and is explicitly criticized for its financing of the Shah’s government and its weapons deals.

The North American release this coming December will feature the original French dialogue tracks dubbed into by Sean Penn, Iggy Pop (!), and Gena Rowlands. But since the dialogue tracks were recorded first and the characterizations animated to the nuances of the voices, it’s well-worth catching in its original language.

©Robert J. Lewis 2007