A common theme uniting some of the past year's most acclaimed films has been the experience of life under an oppressive regime. Unfortunately, a disproportionate amount of attention has been lavished upon Germany's overpraised Oscar-winner The Lives of Others, but this subject has also given us two masterpieces, with Cristian Mungiu's Romanian thriller 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, and now Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. Brilliantly adapted from Satrapi's two graphic novels, the film shows us the changing face of Iran through her eyes; as a ten year-old observing the Islamic revolution, as a rebellious teenager leaving the country for Europe, and as a woman returning home only to find a country that she feels like she doesn't belong in anymore. "I was a stranger in Austria and in my own country too", Marji says in the film; she still has great affection for the place of her birth, but she hates what it has become.
Satrapi's ambivalent attitude towards Iran is evident in the opening scenes, when an adult Marji (voiced from adolescence onwards by Chiara Mastroianni, with Gabrielle Lopes playing the child) arrives at a French airport to board a flight home before hesitating, and sitting in a nearby café to reminisce about her life so far. These contemporary bookends are depicted in colour, but the majority of Persepolis takes place in stark black-and-white, with the reliance on simplistic, traditionally drawn animation suggesting the pages of Satrapi's graphic novel sprung to life. Many comic book adaptations have tried to ape the visual style of the material they're drawn from – like the recent Frank Miller films Sin City and 300, for example – but rarely have they exploded onto the screen with this much feeling. Satrapi's approach to animation is deceptively simple. The characters are constructed through clear, simple strokes, with each of them being given just enough detail to feel real, and the gorgeous expressionistic backgrounds place those figures in a stunningly realised world, allowing Satrapi's memories to be recreated with boundless invention and style.
Those memories begin in Tehran in the late 1970's, where young Marji – playful, cheeky, inquisitive – watches with wide-eyed fascination as a revolution takes place in the streets. Marji's liberal parents oppose rule of the Shah, and her uncle Anouch has been held as a political prisoner, so they are all full of hope when he is toppled, but it doesn't take long for the fundamentalist regime that has replaced it to exert an even tighter control over the freedoms of its citizens. This transition is displayed by Satrapi in a single effective shot, of a dozen Iranian woman dressed in burqas, and standing shoulder to shoulder as they beat their chest in unison. That scene is a perfect example of the way Satrapi and her co-director Vincent Paronnaud use this distinctive animation style to give us small vignettes that are packed with meaning and emotion. Later in the film, the filmmakers show themselves to be equally adept whether dealing with the carnage of the Iran-Iraq war (silhouetted soldiers falling on the battlefield), the first pangs of teenage love (Marji literally floating on air) or the heartbreak that follows (a hilarious rehash of the previous sequences, with a much more bitter slant).
The scenes of teenage romance take place in Austria, where Marji, too outspoken and troublesome to be safe in Iran, is sent by her parents to continue her studies. The film's focus narrows at this point to detail Marji's own personal experiences rather than the wider experiences of Iranians as a whole, but the film is no less engaging for that shift. Marji navigates the relatable bumps and byways of her adolescence, and she filters every detail through her typically imaginative, self-deprecating humour – such as the exaggerated growth spurts that see her toppling to the floor with cartoonish features. Persepolis is structured in an episodic fashion, and if the film has a flaw then perhaps it's simply too short. I think the film could have used an extra ten minutes or so to let Marji's story flow a little more, and to develop some of the supporting characters, as only her amusingly straight-talking grandmother (Catherine Deneuve) is given any kind of depth.
In Austria, Marji eventually finds friends and a new way of life, but she always feels like an outsider, and after some years abroad she begins pining for home, but when she does return to Iran, Marji is appalled by what she finds. We see her dismay at the state of her native country through a number of small absurdities, like her experiences at an art class where the students are asked to paint a still life of a burqa-clad model, and their study of Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" is hampered by the censorship of everything below the neck. But we also witness the more serious consequences of the Islamic rule; when Marji accuses a bystander of lechery to save herself from the police, he is carted off to a prison camp in an incident that enrages her grandmother. Marji finds it increasingly difficult to find her place in this society, and once again she must look abroad for a new life.
Persepolis is a totally unique cinematic experience. It is an eye-opening personal journey through a turbulent time of social upheaval, but Satrapi constantly balances the picture's heavy emotional load with wonderfully unexpected comic asides, like the explanation of the Shah's origin's as a puppet show, or the sight of Marji suddenly breaking into a Rocky-style training montage while singing Eye of the Tiger. Incidentally, that latter sequence takes place in English, and one suspects that it won't have quite the same impact for audiences who see Persepolis in the dubbed version that has been put together for the film's UK release. I find the act of dubbing a film insulting at the best of times – particularly so when cultural identity is a core theme of the film – but if it brings Persepolis to a wider audience, then perhaps it is a necessary evil. Satrapi's wonderful film should be seen by all, as it puts a human face on a nation that is too often depicted in the western media as a society full of terrorists and extremists. One of the best ways to understand a foreign culture is through its art, and Persepolis is, in every respect, a remarkable work of art.