Sure, she's from Iran, but, as a child of 1970s progressive Tehran, Satrapi witnessed the overthrow of the repressive (and U.S.-backed) shah only to go through puberty during Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Revolution. From teenage rebellion to sexual awakening to adulthood, Persepolis is a small miracle of authenticity, using gentle but barbed humor and naked sincerity to show how human expression — be it artistic, political or personal — struggles and festers beneath the assaults of religious fundamentalism.
Teamed with French animator Vincent Paronnaud, Satrapi adapts her two-part graphic memoir into a politically astute yet personally intimate portrait of love, life and rebellion under theocratic tyranny. Using 2-D, black-and-white hand-drawn animation (a rarity these days) that evokes both Art Spiegelman's Maus and Charles Schulz's Peanuts, the film captures the spirit of its source comic while remaining fluid and expressive.
Paronnaud and Satrapi don't try to replicate Persepolis' printed page but instead use its deceptively simple drawings as a window into Marjane's fractured childhood. With a feather-light touch, the images compress themes of religious oppression, sexual awakening, teenage rebellion, cultural (and generational) conflict and war into a vibrant profile of personal and political exile.
The film may downplay the novel's pull-no-punches politics and critical depictions of Iran's history of class conflict (Satrapi's family was both educated and cosmopolitan) but it presents a wealth of warts-and-all details about Satrapi's life. Savvy historical flashbacks often give way to deeply personal (if somewhat embellished) anecdotes and even sublime humor. The tone is wistful but never bitter and while there's no mistaking its view of fundamentalism, Persepolis never preaches.
What makes it all work is Satrapi's animated alter ego, Marjane, who is an engaging mix of naïveté, imagination and defiance. As a child, she worships Bruce Lee, confides in her wise but irreverent grandmother (voiced by French film legend Danielle Darrieux) and is all too eager to argue with God — a bearded mystic who ineffectually hovers in the clouds above. Charming and precocious, Marjane is the perfect foil for the mullahs' thuggish thought police — she thumbs her nose at their warnings and finds ways to circumnavigate their edicts. In one of the film's best scenes, she runs into a gauntlet of seedy men in trench coats, peddling CD bootlegs like crack cocaine. "Michael Jackson," they whisper, "ABBA." Marjane makes her score then behind closed doors, dons her "Punk Is Not Ded" jacket and rocks out to Iron Maiden. "ABBA is for wimps," she growls.
It's only when Marjane enters adulthood that Persepolis loses momentum. Though her brief marriage to an Iranian layabout is well told, her move to Vienna for college lacks the wit or self-effacing insight that punctuates the rest of the film. Heartbreak and an inability to fit in may illustrate Satrapi's eternal struggle to find a place to finally call her own, but they don't offer much in the way of drama.
Still, it's a small misfire in an otherwise finely etched and poetic film. Persepolis poignantly communicates both the depth and breadth of Satrapi's life while never forgetting to entertain. It is a rare triumph of political criticism, comical invention and emotional resonance. For those who despair under the United States' clash with Islamic fundamentalism, however, Satrapi's message is decidedly mixed. Though she clearly hopes time will remedy Iran's woes, her freedom came at the expense of her beloved home.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 25, at 4, 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 26, and at 2, 4, 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 27. It also screens at 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 1, at 4, 7, and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 2, and at 2, 4 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 3. Call 313-833-3237 for more information.