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Friday, Dec. 21, 2007
Young and punk in Iran
When Art Spiegelman's "Maus" came out in 1986 (a later edition would win a Pulitzer Prize in 1992), many mused that the graphic novel had come of age. Finally, it seemed, it was possible to meld words and pictures with the richness, depth, and insight of a novel. All sorts of topics could be tabled now, not just men in tights with superpowers.
And yet, this promise was so rarely fulfilled, outside of brilliant exceptions to the rule such as Daniel Clowes' "Ghost World" or Gilbert Hernandez' "Human Diastrophism." In cinema, it's been just as bad: for every adaptation such as "American Splendor" — which wasn't even animated — we get a few years' worth of Fantastic Fours or Spidermen.
Thus, it is a great joy to see that "Persepolis," easily the best graphic novel of the past decade, has not only made it to the screen, but been adapted by the author herself, keeping her striking black-and-white illustration style intact on the big screen.
Marjane Satrapi, an Iranian exile living in Paris, first released the paper version of "Persepolis" in Nov. 2000, and its reputation has only grown since, with translations into 16 different languages. The novels, based on Satrapi's own experiences, describe growing up in Tehran after the Islamic revolution of 1979, life during wartime when Saddam Hussein rained missiles down on the city, and the culture shock of exile in Europe.
Direct and first-person, Satrapi's style describes with the innocence of a child the chaos in which she grew up. It's a unique blend of political realism — Satrapi saw relatives imprisoned and tortured by both the Shah and Khomeini regimes — with magical realism, as her younger self engages in philosophical conversations with god.
As a teen, she rebels against the veil-wearing piety of fundamentalism, and it's this cynical, ironic insider's look of Iran that is perhaps most captivating. One funny scene has a teenage Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastoianni) walking down a street full of dodgy-looking men in overcoats, furtively glancing right and left as they peddle their contraband. Drug dealers? No, they're selling music cassettes, a dangerous commodity in revolutionary Iran. Another scene, more tragic, shows the results of a raid by the morals police on a party where forbidden alcohol is being served.
When Marjane is sent to Europe for her own safety, the tone shifts to her travails in love, her immersion in the punk scene and nightclubbing, and the irony of leaving a country where the women are forced to be puritanical and dress head-to-toe in black, only to wind up living in a hostel run by nuns.
"Persepolis," the film, adheres to the style, tone, and content of the graphic novels, with illustrator/animator Vincent Paronnaud sharing the directing and screenwriting duties with Satrapi. They fully exploit the cinematic possibilities of the images, whether it's a panoramic full-city look of Tehran in winter, or a hilarious, Picasso-esque sequence that shows the effects of teenage growth on Marjane's face and body.
The main drawback is the running time, which at 95 minutes seems curtailed. The filmmakers jettison content, history is elided too quickly for those not informed on modern Iran, and characters — like a girl Marjane befriends who is later executed — barely have time to develop. As such, the film is a nice addition to the books, though not a substitute for them.
"Persepolis" has picked up awards everywhere, and is a landmark in modern Iranian film, despite being made in Paris. It confronts the social realities of Iran with a keen sense of moral outrage, whether the subject is wartime child martyrs or the absurdity of figure-drawing classes with a model in a chador. Directors in Iran are reluctant to do this on account of government censorship. (Jafar Panahi's mild-mannered "Offside" (2006) is about the closest one can get to a critique.) Indeed, the Iranian government's reaction has been to call the film "anti-Iranian," but a more accurate term would be "anti-authoritarian," and we can all gloat at their powerlessness to suppress this wonderfully free-spirited movie.