Eyewitness to Iran’s revolution

March 21, 2008

PERSEPOLIS IS a welcome break from the steady diet of disembodied, alienated, computer-generated special effects films served up by Hollywood. It's based on Marjane Satrapi's two-volume graphic memoir tracing her experiences from the 1979 revolution in Iran until her departure for France as a mature young woman.

Persepolis, the film, is animated, but its animation doesn't limit or define it. This humorous and tender narrative takes on such serious topics as growing up in Iran during and after the 1979 revolution, the changing perceptions of Iranians post-1979, racism, sexuality and the émigré experience. Infused with the humor of a young girl's perspectives, the film retains nonetheless a seriousness not typically associated with its genre.

Persepolis makes certain compromises between Satrapi's memoir and its role as film. The film focuses mostly on Satrapi's experiences after her initial departure for Austria. If there is one weakness, it is that the first 20 minutes seem rushed. Many of the elements that contribute to Marjane's self-portrait are omitted or glossed over.

Review: Movies

Persepolis, written and directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, starring Chiara Mastroianni.

In the first book, for example, Marjane shows great concern for class differences and great confusion and disappointment when her leftist parents uphold class distinctions. Karl Marx appears momentarily in the film, but he is not identified and only by reading the memoir would the viewer understand this enigmatic apparition. In fact, Satrapi's memoir pays tribute to Rius' Marx for Beginners, one in a series of left-wing comic book primers. Volume I of Satrapi's memoir also develops a tug-of-war relationship between Marjie and God, on the one hand, and Marx, on the other.

This highly symbolic interaction where God and Marx resemble each other reinforces the real complexities and many forces involved in the 1979 revolution. While the book develops this quite thoroughly, the film does not, leaving out Marx and much of the left's role in Iranian politics. In spite of this, the film does manage to portray the revolution as more complex than a U.S. audience might otherwise assume.

The film also succeeds in depicting Iranian society as multi-faceted, cutting against the monolithic portrayals of Iranians post-1979. Persepolis rightly portrays Iranians as people with conflicting ideas and different political views, educational backgrounds, interests, tastes and aspirations.

The film opens and closes with Marjane in an airport, her destination unknown. She is a representative of all those who have left their homeland, who no longer fit in and who cannot fit in elsewhere.

Persepolis was made in France, which has had to confront its own relationship to immigrants from its former North African colonies in recent decades. This issue has become highly polarized in France, at times strengthening the fascist National Front party. Left liberals in France opposed to racism, those who support such antiracist organizations as SOS-Racisme and MRAP, would find in Persepolis an appealing argument in favor of pluralism.

These viewers may also applaud the film's de-emphasizing of the Communist left in its portrayal of Iranian history. This may explain the shortcomings of the early part of a film: The balance between the political experience of the Iranian revolution and the émigré experience is skewed.

This hurts the film, not just politically, but in the coherence and strength of its storyline as well. First, it results in a rushed, somewhat less coherent opening to an otherwise warm and humane film. Second, it weakens Satrapi's character, whose rebellions against the constraints imposed by the Islamic regime are clearly rooted in her family's political history.

That said, Persepolis remains an important film that does not defend the Iranian government, and at the same time helps undermine the case for U.S. intervention as a solution to Iranians' political struggles. Go see this film. You will walk away with much to think about and with a strong sense of humanity.

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