Program Notes: Persepolis (2007)

Animation has for so long been the domain of fairy-tale heroines and wise-guy bunnies that it's a shock to discover that the form can tell human stories with the depth of great literature.

That's what we have in Persepolis, the animated French-made feature based on Marjane Satrapi's graphic novels about her youth in revolutionary Iran.

There's nothing remotely cute here, thematically or visually. Told in black-and-white line drawings occasionally relieved by splashes of color or subtle shading, this film by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud could have been shot as live action.

But animation adds another dimension; the movie's minimalist style allows us to zero in on the emotions unfolding on the screen without distractions that might pull the eye away from what really matters. It's a heightened reality.

Film Screening:
Persepolis (2007)
Saturday, Nov. 16 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

The story begins in the late '70s in the reign of the Shah.

Marji is a high-spirited, inquisitive child whose obsessions are indulged by her thoroughly Westernized family. To tell the truth, she's a bit of a brat, given to carelessly throwing karate kicks like her movie hero, Bruce Lee.

Marji's parents are professionals chafing under the Shah's heavy-handed government; they yearn for freedom, though they tend to be on the sidelines when the streets fill with protesters. Still, when revolution comes, they welcome it.

"A society of freedom and justice at last," rhapsodizes Marji's father, a sweet man so sensitive he's often in tears.

If only. The Shah's rule is quickly replaced with a reactionary government that ruthlessly enforces Islamic law. Marji and her female relations must hide their hair. She is chided by a gun-toting member of the Guardians (the morality police) for daring to run down the street: "When you run, your behind moves in an obscene way."

There is much celebration when Marji's beloved uncle, an outspoken Communist who has been in the Shah's prison for nearly a decade, is freed. Shortly thereafter he's arrested by the new government.

As The Who so perceptively observed: "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

The ever-defiant Marji doesn't take well to submissiveness. She wears a "Punk Is Not Ded" sweat shirt under her black outer garments. She hangs around a street corner where black marketeers peddle forbidden CDs of Iron Maiden and the Bee Gees. She berates her art history teacher when she's asked to study a copy of Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus," which has been crudely bowdlerized with black patches to hide the nudity.

In fact, Marji's rebelliousness is dangerous. Now that she's a teen – and since Iranians expect at any moment to be overrun by Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army – her parents decide to send her to Vienna to continue her studies. At least she'll be free of the day-to-day repressiveness of Iran.

Marji's sojourn in the West is both liberating and sobering. She takes advantage of this new intellectual freedom and hangs with other young people – pot-smoking "intellectuals" who spout cant and have no idea of the things Marji has seen. She falls in love (or at least lust) and endures various hardships, including a stint living on the street.

Eventually she returns to Tehran, only to find things have gotten worse. The streets are patrolled by armed religious fanatics; neighbors inform on one another.

The one bright spot is her grandmother, a wise and witty blend of doting matriarch and sarcastic, no-nonsense feminism.

Persepolis (named for the ruined capital of ancient Persia) is as much an emotional journey as a physical one. Now living in Paris, Satrapi has a classic case of migrant’s remorse – she knows she cannot live in her own country, but Iran's culture and ethos continue to tug at her, to provide a framework for the woman she has become.

And though the film is filled with disturbing moments, it's often terribly funny.

The hand-drawn artwork is deceptively simple but creates a vibrant, fully inhabited world. There's a visceral reaction when the sort of drawings you might find in a children's book are used to depict something as ghastly as a firing squad.

Some of the flourishes employed by Satrapi and Paronnaud are breathtaking. They use color only in the film's framing device; the past unfolds in black and white.

And early on there's a thumbnail rendition of 20th-century Iranian history enacted by stick puppets. It's brilliant.

Other films in the series “Middle Eastern Voices”

This film series complements the exhibit Echoes: Islamic Art & Contemporary Artists on display through April 27, 2014, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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