By Rahul Hamid
Produced by Marc-Antoine Robert and Xavier Rigault; written and directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, based on Satrapi's graphic novels; music by Olivier Bernet; art direction by Marc Jousset; edited by Stéphane Roche; animation coordinated by Christian Desmares; starring the voices of Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, Simon Akbarian, Gabrielle Lopes, and François Jerosme. Animated, Black & White and color, in French, German, English, Farsi, 95 mins. A Sony Pictures Classics Release. www.sonyclassics.com.
The burden we place on non-Western art is that of metaphor. We almost always read it as symbolic of its nation's politics or as an allegory of the inequities of globalization. The personal obsessions, subjective observations, and stylistic flourishes of the artist are all subordinate to this interpretation. In her pair of Persepolis graphic novels, Marjane Satrapi found an elegant solution to this problem. The two volumes chronicle a childhood disrupted by cataclysmic events. The first book takes place in Iran of 1980 as a ten-year-old Satrapi confronts a world changed by the Islamic revolution. Rich with political and personal details, the book introduces us to Satrapi's courageous relatives who opposed the Shah, her schoolmates who cannot get used to wearing veils, policemen who use the new regulations to bully the public, and to a nation torn by its bloody war with Iraq.
Satrapi's narrative voice deftly combines the naiveté of a young girl with the wisdom of her older self. The young Marjane wrestles with God and Marx internally, speaking to each as a disembodied head each night, as externally she watches the world and values of her progressive parents crumble. As the story continues, Marjane grows up, emigrates, and is educated abroad at the insistence of her parents, gets married, and finally moves permanently to France. She writes about and illustrates these later adventures with the same penetrating self-analysis as she brings to her earlier life. The books provide an unforgettable portrait of a young woman, a lively recent history of Iran, and an account of modern-day exile.
So, it was with high hopes that I went to see the animated film version of Persepolis and, perhaps, it is precisely these expectations that caused my great disappointment. The plot of the novels is squeezed into the hour-and-a half running time of the film, removing many of the vivid characters and ideas. This need not be problem, of course, as nearly all books adapted to film go through a similar process of condensation. In fact, a film ought not to slavishly imitate its original source and should come alive as its own cinematic entity. What is lost in Persepolis is something more fundamental: it is the nuance of Satrapi's voice. The film races through her life, introducing the major plot points—revolution, repression, exile, broken romances, and escape to France—and trusts that the sensational nature of these episodes will speak for themselves without as much of Satrapi's direct narration. The consequence is that the film presents a more clichéd and predictable perspective on the events portrayed. It becomes a rather tepid celebration of Western tolerance and a warmed-over indictment of Islamic fundamentalism.
Since the revolution, the perception of Iran in Western countries has been largely shaped by two factors—the alarmist, increasingly hysterical rhetoric of the "War on Terror," on the one hand, and, on the other hand, reports of government-sanctioned repression, human rights violations, and hateful, bigoted statements on the part of the extremists who run the country. The noise created by these two sides has drowned out most, if not all, other voices. Satrapi's story challenges this pernicious binary and presents a wider range of positions. Her father and mother are moderates. They hate the Shah and later the Mullahs, but they do not rock the boat; they try to live under the radar, eventually sending their daughter abroad. Their money and class protect them somewhat from both regimes, a fact to which Satrapi does not call much attention in either the film or the graphic novels. The young Marjane idolizes her uncle, a patriot, who passionately fought the Shah in the cause of democracy. He, like thousands of other leftists, democrats, and socialists who fought alongside the Islamicists against the despot, was bitterly disappointed by the end result of the revolution.
Marjane takes both his idealism and disappointment to heart. The film portrays her relationship with her uncle, but the complexity of his character is diminished—he becomes mostly an inspirational character rather than the voice of the many people in Iran who hated the Shah, and who at the same time feel alienated from the Islamic Republic. Marjane visits him in prison and wonders if some of his bravery exists within her. In the film his story becomes a part of her personal psychology without the political nuance—the film thus falling into the simplistic East vs. West oppositions that the graphic novels sought to dispel. Somehow, in the adaptation, the Iranian specificity of the story slips away and a new, more Western message about the search for personal freedom and fulfillment takes its place.
Satrapi codirected the film with underground comic author Vincent Paronnaud and the one of the best aspects of the film is the way in which it evokes the visuals of the graphic novels. It is animated in stark black-and-white two-dimensional images. The action appears on expressionistic, foreshortened backgrounds like an animated version of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The luminous, inky black and bright white used by the filmmakers adds further depth of field. This fidelity to Satrapi's original vision highlights the experiential differences between the graphic novel and the film media. In a comic panel, a reader pores over each character's expression, the pose and placement of the various elements, the precise ways in which the text and a specific still image interact, with each element conveying a particular message and emotion. In film the motion is fluid and does not allow the same intense concentration on a single frame or even on a shot. Movement of the frame and within it and the voice-actor's inflections become as important as composition and mise-en-scène. Most importantly, time emerges as a determining force: no longer can we dwell on the curvy moustache of Marjane's martyred uncle or the prissy expression of one of her teachers who uses Islamic law to bully her students. The events of Marjane's life flow by easily and fast, as a beautiful spectacle, without an emotional punch.
This lack of resonance is not the fault of film, but a conscious decision on the filmmakers' part to rush the story forward. Marjane leaves Iran for schooling in Vienna a third of the way into the film. The film provides only a brief taste of her childhood—her sense of a dissident heritage and the culture of the country from which she derives her identity. Most of the Iranian portion focuses on how she and her friends embrace Western pop culture and attitudes. In a series of confrontations with teachers and other officials, the young Marjane defies the Islamicists and proclaims her cosmopolitan nature. She and her classmates wear rock T-shirts and imitate Western styles. There is a sense throughout the film that Marjane is already a French citizen merely awaiting her final reunion with her true Western self and mother country. Orly Airport is the only location depicted in color, privileging her perspective now as a French citizen—coding France as "the present" and the film's primary point of reference. This effect is further reinforced by the casting of French stars, with recognizably French voices, in the roles of Marjane, her mother, and her grandmother (Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, and Danielle Darrieux, respectively). Darrieux, as the grandmother full of tips on feminine beauty and generalized advice about being proud of who you are, seems as French as she does Iranian.
In the Vienna segment, Marjane learns that she is not as Western as she imagined when Austrians treat her as exotic and strange, curious about her only to the extent that they are curious about her country and its troubles. This segment, like those of early childhood, is rushed—what could have been a fascinating look at the psychology and politics of cultural dislocation becomes a rather ordinary story of adolescence and jilted love. In a choppy middle segment Marjane is accused of thievery and evicted by her prejudiced landlord; she catches her Austrian boyfriend cheating on her with a blonde, and ends up living on the street for some time. While her angst is palpable, the details of why she is forced into homelessness are hazy and the sequence rings hollow in its echo of so many melodramatic French coming-of-age films. From here, the film loses its political focus altogether as it covers Marjane's ill-fated first marriage, her return to Iran, and her final escape to France. By the end of Persepolis, whatever balance there had been at the beginning between the personal and the political is completely undermined by the much more pedestrian story of an individual.
While I believe, pace Al Capone, that fundamentalists of all stripes should be mocked early and often, all of the adult Iranians who are not part of Marjane's family are portrayed as vicious, shortsighted fanatics. In an interview with Satrapi by the film's distributor, she says that the black and white of her novels and film lend the story a universal appeal, erasing national and racial divisions. Yet, she and her family appear as white with dark hair as opposed to the Austrians who appear as white with blond hair, while the male fundamentalists appear to share the same face, dipped three quarters in black to represent their beards. Iranian women, seen mostly in public, are obscured in head-to-toe black. Such representation implies a racial undercurrent—Marjane and her family seem white, while the rest of the Iranians appear to be ethnically different. Ideological and religious difference is visually coded as a racial, almost organic division.
This division even extends to language. The Satrapis and major characters speak Parisian French, while Farsi is heard only on the radio as the voice of the oppressive regime, marking it as a foreign language even in Marjane's Iranian home. The only impression we're given of Iran is of its brutality. Through these devices the film separates Marjane and her family from any vestige of Iranian culture and society, so that, when Marjane is told to be proud of her heritage, we have no sense of what that might mean or why she should embrace this highly abstracted ideal. The monochrome world of Persepolis seems hermetically sealed. There is none of the breathing room that would allow for a range of characters and moral responses. There is only the hard division between good and evil. The filmmakers, it would seem, are responding to Western fears about Iran and Muslims, in general—inflamed in Europe by the Paris riots and terrorist bombings in England and Spain. Through the caricature of her countrymen, Satrapis sends the subconscious message that she and other moderate Iranians are Westerners at heart. Although for some this may be a pleasant-to-watch liberal salve for strained Western sensibilities, I would recommend buying the books.
Rahul Hamid is a Cineaste Assistant Editor.
To buy the Persepolis graphic novels click here
Copyright © 2008 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXIII, No. 2