To kick off 2016, first-time presenter Jalina brought us our first animated film in over 15 months (since Brittany’s “Perfect Blue”) – 2007’s Persepolis, directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi. It was the first full-length film for both, and it was based on Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name.
The film begins (in color) in an airport terminal in France where Marjane (“Marji”) is denied boarding a plane to Iran. Sitting in the terminal, she begins to recall her childhood and adolescence.
Marji was an outspoken but quite impressionable eight-to-nine-year-old during the time of the Iranian Revolution. As the tide begins to turn towards the revolutionaries, Marji’s parents are delighted but she initially supports the Shah on the basis of her lessons in school until her parents explain the history and she is able to meet her uncle, who is a newly-released political prisoner of the old regime. Her family is optimistic that the revolution will bring freedom to Iran, but it is hijacked by religious fundamentalists. Her uncle, with whom she has become close, is reimprisoned and subsequently dies in custody.
Despite the repressive nature of the new regime, Marji remains a rebellious young girl, emulating Bruce Lee, buying black market rock and roll music, and generally not respecting the edicts of the government. For what would appear to be her own benefit, after the death of her uncle her parents decide to send her off to a boarding school in Vienna.
Marji falls in with a group of young punk rockers, and ashamed of her Iranian heritage tries from time to time to pass herself off as French. Ultimately, however, her rebelliousness is too much for the nuns at the boarding school and she is kicked out. She bounces around a bit and eventually takes on a room with an unsavory older woman who considers her a prostitute.
She blossoms into a young woman and begins to have interest in boys, but after a particularly bad breakup where she caught her boyfriend sleeping with another girl, she is falsely accused of theft by her landlord and thrown out onto the streets. With nowhere to go she becomes homeless until she becomes so ill that she is admitted into a hospital. When she recovers, she arranges a return to Iran to live with her parents under the condition that they don’t ask about her disastrous time in Vienna.
Back in Tehran, she initially falls into a deep depression and considers suicide, but after a dream of God and Karl Marx encouraging her to live she turns herself around. She reestablishes a strong relationship with her grandmother but remains as rebellious as ever. Just as she was in her childhood, her grandmother remains her moral compass. A particularly important moment comes after Marji believes that she is about to be arrested for wearing makeup and she falsely accuses a stranger of sexual harassment to draw attention away form herself. She nonchalantly tells her grandmother later that she had no choice, but her very disappointed grandmother reminds her that there is always a choice.
Marji enrolls in college and becomes serious with a boyfriend. In fear of being arrested for consorting with a boy, she decides to marry him. A year later she is dissatisfied with the relationship, and following a raided co-ed party where one of her male friends dies falling from the roof in an attempt to escape the police, she decides to divorce her husband, and her family decides to permanently send her to France in order that she not be arrested as a political dissident. When she arrives in France, her cab driver asks where she is from, and this time she proudly anounces that she is Iranian. The end.
I like this movie quite a bit – if for nothing else than its distinctive style. It provides a unique look at the tumultuous years in Iran during and following the revolution through the eyes of a child, and it does a very good job of walking the line between being a Bildungsroman and a political commentary, and it has a good deal of humor to offset the heavier material. Although she does make some poor decisions from time to time, Marji is an eminently likeable character. In fact, my only complaint is that it doesn’t package itself into a neat story. With autobiography, that’s often difficult to do – an ending (particularly for a non-posthumous story) can be tricky, as there aren’t necessarily such neat stopping points as we find in fiction. But I still think that the film didn’t quite pull off the narrative aspect. We start in an airport in France but it seems like by the end of the film the script has completely forgotten about that point. Why was Marji in the airport? Why couldn’t she get on the plane to get back to Iran? Other than daydream about her childhood, what came out of that? The thread is simply dropped. And we end instead with a sudden and out-of-place recollection of her grandmother. When the final credits start rolling, my reaction was like, “What – that’s the end? That’s it?” But it’s a great journey for the previous 90 minutes and I can’t hit the film too hard for having an anti-Neal-Stephensonesque flop of an ending.