Persepolis is the story of Marjane “Marji” Satrapi and her younger years during the Iranian revolution and some of the Iraq-Iran war. Nurtured by her modern, liberal family, feisty and idealistic Marji adores Bruce Lee and aspires to be a prophet. She witnesses the fall of the Shah and sees even more conservative Islamic fundamentalists fill the vacuum. Persepolis is a coming-of-age epic, and as a captivatingly animated story of an adventurous young woman, it could easily be the lovechild of Spirited away (Hayao Miyazaki) and the 90s cartoon version of Madeline.
I love how Satrapi is represented as a young girl. She is passionate, outspoken, a bit goofy, and naive. It shouldn’t feel “fresh” to see a dynamic woman main character in 2018, but it is. I enjoyed seeing a movie from a female gaze that’s directed by a woman.
Rebellious teenage Marji – who wears forbidden Michael Jackson badges and barters for illicit heavy metal tapes – is sent to Vienna where she can be herself in safety. She lasts a few years, trying on ill-fitting identities (hardcore punk, nihilist hippy). But after suffering hapless romances, racist incidents, and cultural impasses, Satrapi returns back to Iran to be with her family – despite the oppression that she will endure.
Satrapi has a fantastic grandmother, and their relationship is magic. I have never seen this often-special relationship represented so perfectly. Satrapi’s grandmother has amazing life advice, such as “The first marriage is a rehearsal for the second,” and that to keep firm breasts, one must dunk them in iced water each morning. She guides Satrapi by encouraging her to stay true to herself and isn’t afraid to give her a reality check when she needs it.
The animation is borderline-psychedelic. Persepolis is a rich world of patterns, textures and amazing noses of every vector. The weight of snow on tree branches, steam rising off food, curling iron banisters, bomb blasts, birds twisting around in the air, and single tears running down cheeks are all poetic, and they convey normally indescribable parts of memories, places and time periods.
To watch Persepolis is to step inside of Satrapi’s mind’s eye. The story is told as a flashback from her perspective. Spaces meld into one another, time blurs, scenes fade in and out. The movie ends with the audio of a memory in the past. The overall effect is so lush and sensory, and I thought the representation of mental space was a feat. The scenes that explain some of Iran’s history look like shadow theatre, with shuffling waves and bouncing 2D planes. It made it easy to digest the historical information.
The movie is almost entirely black and white and is full of silhouettes and literal darkness. The outlines of the casualties of war and figures fleeing in the night – nuances of what it must be like to live through a war and then to live with the memories of it – are expressed with elegance.
Persepolis has so much to give: visual delight, eye-opening history lessons, warm fuzzies about matriarchy, and a potent dose of girl power. I came away from this film with a new understanding of Iran’s history and political situation. Persepolis humanizes what is to most of us a complicated, far away thing. Making a film that allows different people to empathize with each other is a wonderful gift for humanity. It’s a film that left me feeling nourished, visually, but also personally; to me, Persepolis captures the life of a young woman in a way that rarely happens in film. I found Marjane’s relationships with her mother and grandmother and her struggles with fitting in with groups (and the wider universe) relatable and validating.
For the love of brilliant, beautiful, autobiographical coming-of-age tales about war, devotion, and Iron Maiden, watch this movie!