By Ray Pride
A West Coast publicist is apologizing in advance.
There’s an upcoming foreign-language film she’s representing but she doesn’t think it would be something I would like, she tells me on the phone: it primarily takes place in a small shop in a neighborhood in a big city where people speak another language. And it’s from the point-of-view of women!
I thought she knew me better: there are few film narrative forms I generally crave as much as a snapshot of what’s happening on someone’s corner halfway across the world. Quartiere films you might call them, after the neighborhoods in Paris and wonderful films that have set there, from “Le jour se leve” to “When The Cat’s Away” to “The Taste of Others” to “Regular Lovers.”
Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” is a fantastic, fantastical adventure down the streets of one characters’ mind. Her work won acclaim as a two-part graphic novel (first published in France in 2000 and 2001), and the film version, co-directed by French comics artist Vincent Paronnaud, took a jury prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. People who’ve seen the animated movie on the festival circuit generally love it. Still, “Persepolis,” France’s entrant for best Foreign Language film, like the astonishing and equally well-reviewed Romanian “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days,” did not make the Academy’s shortlist of nine on Tuesday. It’ll just have to get by on being very, very, very good.
The film is book-ended in color in present time, with Marjane voiced by Chiara Mastroianni, but the German expressionism-inflected hand-drawn black-and-white flashbacks are the bulk of the movie, rich with anecdote and incident that it would be a pity to detail through turgid synopsis. (Mastroianni’s mother Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux are among the other memorable voices.) Any ongoing arguments about the virtue of the graphic novel as its own artistic form, from “Maus” to “Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth,” are usually predicated on the most bogus of elitism or philistinism, and the same ought to hold true for animated movies, particularly in a year that saw the release of both “Ratatouille” and “Persepolis,” two films that are far more expressive than the routine point-and-shoot product that constitutes too much “cinema” today. This is extremely grown-up stuff and it’s found its ideal representation in what Satrapi calls her “stylized realism.” “Persepolis” could have been told as live-action, but why? With material as frightful and as potentially violent as Picasso’s “Guernica” and a location that filmmakers would never be allowed to photograph, a fine thing happens in the transition to a drawn world. Like children around the world being drawn to the sexually—and racially neutral—protagonists of “Alvin and the Chipmunks,” the keen visual abstractions of “Persepolis” make a unique set of circumstances in Satrapi’s life somehow more universal: we go along for the ride inside the subjective point-of-view of a teenager’s life much more willingly than, say, while watching the lovingly titled “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour In Disney 3-D.”
The greatest gift of “Persepolis” may lie in the filmmakers’ ability to portray fifteen or so years in a young woman’s life, from the age of 8 to 24, in turbulent times, without becoming earnest or didactic. Serious subjects generally don’t thrive in the hands of the humorless, which these filmmakers certainly are not. (The many cultural observations that resonate includes a progression in musical taste from ABBA to The Bee to the charmingly misspelled scrawl on a jacket, “Punk is not ded.”)While there are nostalgic and sentimental elements, they do not extend to exile, which “Persepolis” does not romanticize.
What does a work of art this accomplished bring into the world? As Satrapi concludes the introduction “The Complete Persepolis” (2002), which I quote at modest length, “Since [the fall of the Shah], this old and great civilization has been discussed mostly in connection with fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism. As an Iranian who has lived more than half my life in Iran, I know that this image is far from the truth… [A]n entire nation should not be judged by the wrongdoings of a few extremists. I also don’t want those Iranians who lost their lives in prisons defending freedom, who died in the war against Iraq, who suffered under various repressive regimes [or to] flee their homeland to be forgotten. One can forgive but one should never forget.”
For ninety-six minutes, “Persepolis,” the film, is equally as lucid: heartfelt, heartbreaking, complex, and in its gorgeous, fluid black-and-white animated abstraction, unforgettable.
“Persepolis” opens Friday.