’Persepolis’ no ordinary cartoon

I feel tremendous pressure to love Persepolis. Forget the rave reviews, Oscar nomination and Grand Jury Prize at Cannes – I feel obligated to love it because it is an original, personal movie. The film, an adaptation of writer/director Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, is an incredibly personal coming-of-age story. This French animated feature, mostly in black and white, tells Satrapi’s true story of growing up in and out of Iran during a time of social and political upheaval. Despite its numerous merits, Persepolis ultimately falls short due to its lack of dramatic stamina; it simply fails to wholly engage its audience.

We are first introduced to Marjane as a rambunctious only child living in Iran under the Shah’s dictatorship. Her parents are educated liberals who wish for democracy, but when her communist uncle is executed during the Iranian revolution it becomes clear that the transition to a national republic will not be a smooth one.

Under the new clergy, which introduces a strict moral code that mandates that women wear headscarves, Marjane shows her adolescent defiance by adopting aspects of Western culture such as Nike tennis shoes and a love of the Bee Gees (and later of Iron Maiden). Revelations like these provide engrossing insights, however minor, into Iranian culture that give the film an indisputable touch of honesty.

The danger of the Iran-Iraq war leads Marjane’s parents to send her to Austria where, despite originally feeling forlorn, she makes friends with some nihilistic classmates who introduce her to underground Vienna. We track her growing pains, through a melodramatic existential crisis stemming from a failed relationship and later leave Europe with Marjane who is homesick and returning to Iran.

Back home she finds her friends and family living double lives: they are outwardly obedient civilians who secretly contravene, hosting alcohol and dance parties. Depression initially hits, but Marjane rebounds to a laughably cheap rendition of “Eye of the Tiger.” Instead of pushups and wind sprints, our chadored Iranian Rocky Balboa takes her newfound spirit to the classroom, where she speaks out against the numerous social constraints and inequalities. Marjane’s protests eventually birth fear in her parents who urge her to emigrate to Paris, where the film ends.

Perhaps more than anything, this is a film about home. Despite all of the social regulations and physical risks she encounters, Marjane has a magnetic connection with her homeland. The film’s few color scenes, which represent present-day Marjane in France, have a melancholy overtone. The problem for me is that since this story is true, and Marjane is currently only 38-years-old, there is still much to be discovered about her life and her relationship to Iran.

Growing up with Marjane in super fast-forward (a quarter-century in 95 minutes) leaves much to be desired. Although we are able to see what Marjane feels at a given time, the speed of the story often prevents us from feeling it ourselves. We meet and dismiss supporting characters at a speed that not only produces in the film a consciously episodic effect, but leaves the viewer feeling toyed with and, consequently, apathetic.

The character with the strongest pulse is Marjane’s grandmother, voiced by legendary French actress Danielle Darrieux. It is the eldest family member who embodies the youthful liberalism Marjane comes to adopt. Outspoken Grandma, often talking about genitals or her breasts, teaches Marjane the importance of integrity, a central theme to this film. Persepolis would have greatly benefited from a few more interpersonal relationships of this depth and truthfulness.

The visual style, simple and monochromatic, lends itself to a greater emphasis on the story. In contrast to Images’ previous showing, Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly in which the visuals, rather than narrative carry the film, Persepolis relies heavily on its plot and character development. The film is an impressive display of the capabilities of animation; unlike the Pixar films that are closely approaching reality, Persepolis proves that images need not be lifelike to evoke strong emotional responses.

Furthermore, Satrapi’s abstinence from live-action allows us to enter this foreign, intimate place that actors could easily obstruct, and one of the film’s most successful aspects is the elegantly understated voice-over work.

The film is certainly an achievement in various aspects, and I commend Satrapi for telling her personal story and tackling this touchy subject with great compassion. As a unified piece of work, however, this film fails to reach its full potential. Its rushed, episodic and anecdotal nature, coupled with the fact that Satrapi’s life is still a work in progress, leaves the audience emotionally unfulfilled when the credits roll.