Movie review: Persepolis (2007)

Persepolis relates the experiences of a young girl who lives through the Iranian revolution of 1979, the Iran-Iraq war, and the aftermath of the war. To the average American, Iran is only a repressive Islamic state. Persepolis brings a human face to modern Iran, showing the cost to actual people who lived through the revolution and the war.

Persepolis tells its story through black and white animation. The film is an Iranian-French-American collaboration in French, based on the story by Marjane Satrapi, who is also the heroine of the story.

At the start of the revolution, Marjane is a young girl, brash and courageous as some young girls are. She loves Bruce Lee and wants to be a prophet.

She supports the Shah until her father recounts how the Shah came to power, the repression he conducts, and an uncle imprisoned by the regime. Marjane learns about struggle, political prisoners, and communists—among her own family and in the community at large.

Along the way, we learn about some of modern Iran’s history. In one scene, the political collusion between the Shah-to-be and the British is made explicit—one wants unlimited power, the other oil. (The version of Persepolis I saw was in French with English subtitles. Listening to the British figure speak French was quite comical…and painful.)

The movie also provides brief lessons on the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. Initially so hopefully, the revolution quickly turns from freedom to repression under a strict interpretation of Islam. Police to enforce conduct and clothing abound. Women are forced to cover their hair.

Marjane’s parents fear for her safety—she is a headstrong and outspoken girl and people are disappearing left and right. They send her to Vienna, where she bounces from group to group to group trying to fit in…and from residence to residence to residence. She ends up living on the street…and then lands in a hospital. She phones home, asking to return. The war is over so it is semi-safe for her to return to the repressive state that is Iran.

She returns to Iran as a young woman, no longer the little girl her parents knew. The state is as repressive as ever, much worse than anything under the Shah. The silliness of the rules appear in her university art classes. Botticell’s Venus is censored to the point that it really isn’t an artwork to appreciate. Drawing class is a farce with female models fully clothed in headscarves and long shapeless black robes.

Persepolis is ultimately a human story. Like people the world over, Marjane, her family, and others she interacts with just want happiness, enjoyment, and to live a good life. They struggle to attend parties and live life in the midst of the repression and the threat of imprisonment, torture, and death.

My favorite character next to Marjane, who shows such spunk as a girl but loses it to depression and despair in her young adult life, is her ever-present grandmother. So full of wisdom, she seemed to be a steadfast rock in the life of Marjane.

At one point, Marjane was in despair about her marriage ending. Her grandmother put it all in perspective. She herself divorced 55 years ago. Better to be alone than with a jerk. Besides, the tears weren’t for the marriage, her grandmother wisely said, they were for being wrong; admitting mistakes is hard.

I can easily see why Persepolis received the accolades it did. Delve into the chaotic world of Iran during the last couple decades of the 20th century through the eyes of an Iranian girl coming of age. Persepolis shows the experiences of an Iranian girl/woman struggling with the new Iran and with European culture.