Persepolis: From Shah to Worse

I used to draw comics when I was a kid but always looked to great predecessors for inspiration, never my own life. Still, I never had as interesting experiences as Marjane Satrapi. She’s an Iranian 39-year-old who has chosen that medium as a way of expressing what her life looked like as times changed in one of the most fascinating (and demonized) countries in the world.

The film begins in 1978 when Marjane (called Marji) is nine years old. She has a good life in Tehran, attending the Lycée Français. The Shah is still the ruler of Iran, but change is in the air. Marji’s parents are tired of him; uncle Anoosh, a communist, has been a political prisoner for a long time. The Islamic Revolution takes place the following year and Anoosh is released and returns to his family, hopeful that the religious aspects of the revolution will be toned down in the future. He remains optimistic, but it soon becomes clear that the Shah has been replaced with something even worse. The new leadership imposes strict Islamic laws and persecutes the opposition; a few years later uncle Anoosh is not only arrested but also executed for his political beliefs. Marji becomes a teenager and learns how to live in a dictatorship… but it doesn’t prevent her from being attracted to Western music and she is soon reprimanded by her teachers.

Fearing further reprisals, Marji’s parents decide to send her to Vienna where she attends a local school and gets to know other kids her age. However, she realizes that being Iranian is a negative thing in Austria and that Western materialism doesn’t necessarily make her happy.

Simple drawings, but vivid
The film’s animated style is directly lifted from Satrapi’s graphic novels, but the images come alive here in a way that the original can’t quite match; apparently, executive producer Marc Jousset was largely responsible for the cinematic translation that took simple drawings and made them vivid enough to compete with the likes of that year’s Ratatouille (without losing Satrapi’s soul in the process).

The results are a fascinating story about the modern history of Iran, what kind of horrors the Islamic Revolution and Iraq’s subsequent attack on Iran brought, occasionally told almost like an educational fairy tale. The reality becomes more tangible thanks to Marji’s impressions and experiences, as well as those of her family. It’s quite clear that she still loves Iran and its people; the regime’s angered response to the film only illustrates once again how extreme and hostile it is, even to a film this balanced. Marji tells her story with a great sense of humor but we eventually learn that she’s been through a lot; her life in Austria becomes a nightmare because of a love affair that ends tragically for her and because she has no one in this foreign country to rescue her from the abyss.

Every ingredient in the film completes the portrayal of this person and explains her emotions and attitude to the dangerous people who run her country – and the carefree lives of Western college kids. Marji’s family is engaging, not least her grandmother who refuses to acknowledge the new rulers and has plenty of good advice to offer her granddaughter. Chiara Mastroianni provides the voice of Marji (her mother, Catherine Deneuve, plays the girl’s mother) and is utterly compelling throughout.

Many pieces of art have been described as having the power to bring cultures together. You may think it’s a cliché, but this strikingly original animated flick really knows how to make us in the West understand the people of Iran.

Persepolis 2007-France-U.S. Animated. 95 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Xavier Rigault, Marc-Antoine Robert. Directed by Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud. Screenplay: Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud. Graphic Novels: Marjane Satrapi. Voices of Catherine Deneuve (Mrs. Satrapi), Chiara Mastroianni (Marji Satrapi), Danielle Darrieux (Grandmother), Simon Abkarian, Gabrielle Lopes, François Jerosme.

Trivia: The English-language version features the voices of Deneuve, Mastroianni, Sean Penn, Iggy Pop and Gena Rowlands.

Cannes: Jury Prize.

Quote: “Fear lulls our minds to sleep.” (Darrieux)

Last word: “The first language of the human being has been drawing, before writing, before talking. To go over their fears, they started drawing. So this is this whole paradox. And I’m very happy to hear that, because people go to watch the movie and they say, ‘after 10 minutes I forgot it was an animation’ and that was exactly what I wanted. Because for me animation is just a technique. It’s like saying, well this is a kind of black and white movie. Well, what is a black and white movie? You can say any story in black and white or in color or in Technicolor or I don’t know what. This is just a technique.” (Satrapi,


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