Persepolis: Satrapi Seeks Purpose in Life
Yes, it is petty to find fault with a movie because it did not live up to the book, and yet I am going to do it. Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis has recently become an animated film under the same title and I grieve this development.
The 95 minute film is a conglomeration of powerful scenes from the graphic novel, which lose their strength and significance without context. I warn you now, spoilers are a comin’.
The film opens with Satrapi as a young adult in a Paris airport, reminiscing. The next 30 minutes or so are spent with Marjane as a young girl whose life changes instantly when a revolution shatters the Iranian regime under the Shah. From a child who believes she will be a prophet, and who thought that the Shah was chosen by god, Marjane eventually grows into an unsatisfied young adult who is disillusioned with a variety of ideologies and hopelessly searches for a niche in the world. Marjane is an intelligent child in an upper-class family of politically conscious intellectuals. She is given the best schooling, and access to whatever interests her: history, punk rock, Western movies, philosophy, religion, sociology, etc. As she grows up, she travels abroad, has love affairs, rebels, falls prey to depression, travels again. And then the movie ends.
After I finished reading the graphic novel, I was left with a nagging feeling that the main character didn’t actually do anything with her life. The film brought this feeling to the forefront. Having have lived her life is supposed to be enough of an achievement. Writing a graphic novel which documents her adventures, and then having it developed into a motion picture is the pinnacle.
And the movie does have its merits. You, as the viewer, are bombarded with images and anecdotes, and they are often dramatic. The animation is potent and highly stylized. The majority of the film is in stark black and white lines with different shades of gray curling around the edges. War and death in times of peace are shown. Tales of torture are related, and historical facts are meted out, but mostly from a child’s perspective. The film is not exactly painful, but you will likely walk away knowing much more about Iran than you have known before, with many stereotypes dissipating with the ending credits.
And yet, much of the movie’s potency is lost with the background that is available only in the graphic novel. When Marjane, still as a child, runs to her street after it has been bombed and sees a human hand with a bracelet among the rubble, you don’t realize that the reason she is horrified is not because she saw a human body. No, she has seen bodies before, but this was the first of her friends whom she has just seen dead. When their housekeeper relates that her 14-year-old son has been given a plastic key and told that it will lead him to heaven if he dies in the war, you do not know that only the poor children were given that option. And finally, when little Marjane screams at god to get out of her life, you do not feel the same as you would have if you just spent a few hours reading how she confided in god, and seeing how nightly god has comforted and cradled her.
The movie closes with Marjane leaving Iran and her family forever. She is on her way to France, where she will make a debut with her art and eventually publish Persepolis. If you know what is about to happen, then there is some semblance of closure, but if you do not, then all you see is her leaving again, then saying that her grandmother died not long after her departure. And the last thing Marjane says, before there is a flashback to more intimate times with her beloved grandmother, is that “freedom comes with a price.” Why that is equated with her elderly grandmother passing on, isn’t clear.
Persepolis on IMDB
Persepolis on Rotten Tomatoes