“Persepolis” is a coming-of-age tale, an Iranian-condition drama, a female-condition journey and a universally relevant salute to free expression, all presented as a 95-minute hand-drawn cartoon. As animation goes, its simple, black-and-white imagery achieves glory. As a story about family, revolution, roots, integrity and a young girl’s rocky but inspiring evolution, it’s a sparkling blend of poetry, tragedy, humor and humanism.
The film is based on the semiautobiographical graphic novels of Iran-born, Paris-based Marjane Satrapi, who, with fellow artist Vincent Paronnaud, wrote and directed the movie. The drama transpires over a particularly cruel 15-year stretch of modern Iranian history, beginning in Tehran in 1978. For feisty but impressionable 9-year-old Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes as a girl and Chiara Mastroianni as a teen), this is a place where bedtime stories involve an uncle’s accounts of prison torture and where schoolteachers say the shah was picked by God.
Things get even grimmer when the fundamentalists take power and execute opponents and force women into veils. Concerned for their free-spirited daughter’s safety, Marjane’s cosmopolitan parents (Catherine Deneuve, Simon Abkarian) send teenage Marjane to Vienna. There, she experiences freedom, Western-decadence-style, but lacks a feeling of acceptance or purpose.
Consequently, she returns to Iran. But depressed by government clampdowns and a failed marriage, she finds it impossible to remain there.
Compare it with Pixar’s top fare or to the work of Hayao Miyazaki, and the film’s imagery, which is rudimentary-looking, black-and-white and hand-drawn, hardly seems extraordinary. But by giving the pictures a powerful, multifaceted story to tell and enhance, the filmmakers, who serve up everything from the execution of political prisoners to whimsical conversations with Marx and God, deliver a sensational cartoon for grown-ups, a captivating, horrific and comic look at surviving repressive climes.
Marjane, meanwhile, is a terrific creation, so textured in her dynamism that you forget she’s a cartoon. As a spirited kid rocking out to records purchased from black-
marketers working the street corners like drug dealers, she’s a kick and a force. As a young woman stung by romantic heartbreak, she earns tears. As a flawed individual who makes a false charge against a stranger to avoid a personal episode with goonish cops, she’s believably human.
Also transcending animation’s normal capacity for dimension is Marjane’s opinionated, feminist grandmother. Voiced by grande dame Danielle Darrieux, this delightful character erases all misgivings one might have about Satrapi’s decision to shoot this Iranian story in French.