Thursday, February 7, 2008


With Persepolis, the writer/artist Marjane Satrapi has adopted her first two popular comics, memoirs of her childhood and adolescence in Iran and Vienna, into a powerful and affecting feature-length film, with the help of her fellow French artist Vincent Paronnaud. The film, like the comics before it, documents Satrapi's childhood starting in 1978, a year before the revolution that deposed the brutal regime of the Shah of Iran. The way Satrapi traces the trajectory of this revolution — from a hopeful, socialist-tinged move towards democracy and freedom to the shattering of those dreams with an even more brutal Islamic fundamentalist government — is illuminating, poignant, and often surprisingly funny. Her story is told with an unflinchingly accurate child's eye view and a willingness to document her own misunderstandings and childish acts of selfishness and anger. It's from this perspective, outside the action but nevertheless irrevocably affected by it, that Satrapi observed the most earth-shaking changes her country went through. As a child, she saw the Shah fall and, as a consequence, found relatives she'd never met, like her imprisoned Uncle Anoush, suddenly entering her life with fantastic stories of torture, heroism, and grand ideals. The film's greatest accomplishment, and Satrapi's surest talent as a cartoonist and writer, is to capture this wide-eyed wonder, a childish naiveté and idealism that is especially poignant in light of the nightmarish Islamic state that Iran became shortly after the Shah's exile.

It's inevitable that Persepolis the film should be compared to the books on which it is very closely based, and it stands up surprisingly well in terms of its visuals. Satrapi's art, always very simple and not always entirely successful on the page, is actually improved by the fluid, stylized animation that translates it to the screen. With the exception of the unnecessary present-day framing sequences, marred by the addition of color that looks awkward over the iconic drawing style with its heavy black areas, the film's animation is lovely and evocative. This style works especially well in black outlines, which it often switches to for sections of the story that Satrapi didn't witness herself: the horrors of the war against Iraq, the street protests against the Shah, and a dramatic rooftop chase with Islamic police trying to catch some boys fleeing a party. In one stunning early scene, during a protest rally against the Shah, a young man is shot. All the protesters in the scene are drawn as pure black shadows, with only white eyes for features, and this abstraction gives the scene an iconic quality as opposed to the more detailed scenes from Satrapi's own life, as though this moment is already mythic, as it must have been from the vantage point of the young girl who heard about it. When the protesters lift up the dead man's body over their heads in grief and anger, it has something of the sweeping, grandiose quality of Communist art, surely a great influence on Satrapi's own style, and yet it's also a strikingly emotional image, not just a polemical one.

In the more domestic scenes involving Satrapi and the people directly around her, the art is a more stylized and expressive version of her crisp, minimalist linework, ornamented with additional flourishes and texturing to increase the depth and complexity of the drawings for the big screen. Also noteworthy are Satrapi's occasional diversions into imagined and fantastic pasts, which have an even more ornate style, with dense patterns decorating every surface. This denser style is particularly effective in the scene where Satrapi visualizes the reminiscences of her Uncle Anoush, who's recounting his past as a would-be rebel leader in Azerbaijan. The art in this sequence intentionally recalls older Persian art styles, lending to this memory something of the authority and force of history; it was clearly a crucial story for the young Satrapi, an exemplar of integrity and rebellion, both of which would become buzzwords throughout her life.

If the film effectively gets across Satrapi's visual style, it's somewhat less successful at times in maintaining a cohesive and fluid narrative. This is especially true, unfortunately, in the film's most compelling section, the opening chronicle of the revolution and the early days of the Islamic regime. The individual scenes within this section are inarguably compelling, each one a perfectly formed vignette designed to present a powerful emotion, a moment of realization for young Satrapi, or a new change in the country's political situation. But the structure is uneven, and too often one is reminded that this was sourced from a comic — the pacing seems off somehow, with not enough transition between subsequent stories and moments, as though Satrapi was leaving in the white space gutter that divides the panels in her comics. The anecdotal structure works beautifully in her comics; adapted here, without the descriptive titles that separate chapters or any other connective tissue, it sometimes seems awkward and disjunctive. The individual scenes in this opening stand apart from each other as though contained by separate panels, and they aren't allowed to flow into each other as elements in a cinematic narrative. It's tempting to attribute this quality to Satrapi's uncertainty with her new medium, but as the film moves along, the narrative begins to flow much more smoothly. It seems more likely that the opening was somewhat rushed through in order to get to the much weaker segments involving Satrapi's first extended stay abroad in Vienna. As a consequence, a lot of the rich detail and nuance of the first Persepolis novel is omitted or condensed (as, admittedly, any literary work must be for the screen). Persepolis 2 is similarly condensed here, but its stories of Satrapi's first encounters with European decadence, young love, and democracy are less intrinsically interesting or unique than the child's eye view of revolution and religious oppression that's documented in the first book. At times, the film threatens to fall apart under the weight of the teenage Satrapi's melodramatic moaning about love and relationships.

Even this segment of the film is redeemed by Satrapi's biting humor and caustic wit, though, and when she returns to Iran after a period of self-pitying depression and poverty, the film picks itself right back up along with its hero's spirits. The depiction of life in Iran under Islamic fundamentalism is straightforward in its denunciation of the strictures placed on women. Satrapi is especially harsh, and sardonic, with regard to Islam's curious hypocrisy about sexuality, which places strict codes upon women supposedly because men can't be trusted to control themselves otherwise. At her university, she gives a lengthy speech to this effect, and when two policemen tell her to stop running because her rear makes "obscene" motions, she simply snaps back at them to stop staring at her ass then. Satrapi's fierce attitude, developed in equal parts under the influence of punk rock and her staunchly individualist grandmother, brings her through her romantic troubles (in some ways depicted with more tears and drama than the political upheavals) to an understanding of her country and herself.

Persepolis is a remarkably assured filmmaking debut for Satrapi, just as it was a remarkably assured comics debut for her back in 2000, when her first book was published in France. Her storytelling is enveloping and propulsive, capturing the "feel" of life in Iran during the country's most turbulent years. Her attention to detail and often sarcastic sense of humor, as well as her honesty about even her own less flattering moments, enhances her narrative with the kind of human warmth and emotional connections that put the big national events in the context of their effects on individual Iranians. Despite the occasional uneven pacing and the regrettable inclusion of too much weepy teenage drama from Persepolis 2, the film is a deeply compelling portrait of growing up amidst a nation's spasms of rebellion and oppression.


Chet Mellema said...

A very nice read...this is coming to my area in a couple of weeks and I am eager to see it. Do you think it would be a detriment being completely unfamiliar with the comics going in to the screening?

Marc Raymond said...

Excellent discussion of the formal qualities of the film and of the comics, an area in which I have little background. I recently saw the film and wrote a brief entry on my blog, from a very different perspective than yours. If you have time check it out:

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments, guys.

Chet: The film is very similar in tone and content to the comics, and there's pretty much no incident or dialogue here that doesn't come more or less directly from one of the books. So one can stand in for the other quite well. I would imagine it might even be beneficial to see it without having read the comics first. I was probably engaging in too much second-guessing of what was included and what wasn't, and thinking too much about the process of adaptation rather than just experiencing the film. And, although I was disappointed by some of the pacing and editing decisions, the art is definitely an improvement from Satrapi's more minimal style in the comics. If I were to weight the relative merits of the two, I'd say the film looks much better artistically, while the books (especially the first one) have more nuance and detail in the narrative.

Marc: That's a very good discussion of the film from a more political perspective. I don't really disagree with anything you say there. I also wouldn't turn to Satrapi for any complicated analysis of the Iranian situation, and in many ways her summary of the situation is Iran-for-dummies -- more so in the film than in the books, which spend more time on the uncle's stories of the past and more time on the specifics of the situation there in general. Still, I don't think the film positions itself against change. The uncle is mistaken, yes, as so many Iranian idealists were mistaken, for believing that Islamic fundamentalism would not triumph in the post-revolution jockeying for power. But the film doesn't critique him for being mistaken in this way, and his idealism and integrity remains a driving force in Satrapi's life. I don't know if she has any answers about what might be done at the end of the film, and as such the film totally fails as a political statement because it doesn't really advocate for anything, but as a personal chronicle of political turmoil, it works quite well.