The characters in Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" (co-directed with Vincent Paronnaud) are simple, friendly black-and-white line drawings, as uncomplicated as characters in a children's book. Which is precisely what throws you when they get themselves put in prison or in front of a firing squad. Satrapi, who in the graphic novels on which the film is based recalls her upbringing in Tehran during the 1970s, '80s and early '90s, has said that she made her characters abstract so that they'd be more universal, so that we could see "us" in them. And it works.
A familiar story set in an unfamiliar context, it's a paean to the universality of human experience, a testament to the endurance of individuality during great political and fanatical upheaval, and a reminder that even the most complex situations, identities and stories are heartbreakingly simple.
In an era of sophisticated computer animation, "Persepolis" is a visual throwback to a time when abstraction was a useful aesthetic tool, not something to be overcome for the sake of creepy robotic naturalism. The fictionalized memoir is based on Satrapi's experiences as a young girl from a liberal, cosmopolitan family. The impressive movie spans Satrapi's childhood and young adulthood, from age 7 to age 23, when, having lived through the overthrow of the shah, the Islamic revolution and the even more oppressive fundamentalist regime that followed, the Pyrrhic Iran-Iraq war, a painful period of exile in Austria and a hasty marriage, she decides to leave her country for good. (She now lives in France, and the film is France's Academy Award entry for best foreign language film.)
One of the sad, unintended consequences of making films about troubles in faraway lands is that often the trouble comes to define the place in our eyes, which can have a perverse distancing effect on the beholder. This, in a sense, is what Satrapi experienced after her parents sent her to boarding school in Austria to keep her safe from Islamic fundamentalists. Many Austrians lumped her with the backward tyrants she'd fled.
All of these events are recounted through the experiences of the little girl and, later, the young woman who Satrapi was at the time. Her political consciousness begins to awaken, for instance, when her father gently informs her that the shah was not, in fact, chosen by God, no matter what her teacher says. She soaks up her family's optimism at his ouster and manifests it as exuberance, until it becomes clear to all that the new regime will be even worse than the old.
She nourishes herself on her uncle's idealism and her grandmother's strength (voiced by Danielle Darrieux, Mami is an unforgettable character, a modern woman ahead of her time suddenly thrust into a primitive society), and delights in rebelling in every way she can. Satrapi buys Western pop and rock records from clandestine vendors lurking on street corners like drug dealers. She talks back to her teachers, who proselytize about the "martyrs" of the war and enforce the veil. She even unthinkingly lobs an unfair accusation at a stranger to deflect police attention from herself.
"Persepolis" also punctures the myth of the oppressed escaping to freedom and living happily ever after. As Satrapi learns in Vienna, exile brings its own problems. There's a shift in identity, which in her case coincides with adolescence, from staunch objector to exotic flotsam. The solidarity of shared experience -- and moral certainty -- that emboldened her in Iran doesn't exist for her in Vienna. The best she can do is hang out with the misfits at her school, a bunch of disaffected rich kids with a trendy interest in exotic social ideologies, for whom politics are little more than image-enhancing esoteric theories.
Satrapi's entire life has been shaped by struggle, and the removal of that struggle and of the connection to others and sense of self it forged leaves her weak, lost and vulnerable. And yet a return to Iran -- a logical, and yet impossible move -- also fells her. She is an exile in her own country and abroad. How she overcomes this to become productive and make something of her experiences is, in a sense, what "Persepolis" is all about.
"Persepolis." MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material including violent images, sexual references, language and brief drug content. Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes. In French with English subtitles. In limited release.