It's a French animated film, based on a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi about her early life. Since she was born in Iran ten years before the Islamic Revolution, this means we're getting an first-hand account of a turbulent time. The Ayatollah Khomenei took over what had merely been a thuggish Middle Eastern monarchy and turned it into a totalitarian theocracy.
Obviously this is an important film. It fits into the same box as Maus and Wild Swans, in that it's showing us history from ground zero. What's more, it's in no way a forgotten past. On the contrary, Islamic fundamentalism today could hardly be more relevant. The Iranian government complained to the French embassy when this film was shown at Cannes, managed to bully the Bangkok Film Festival into dropping it from its line-up and protested about its inclusion in the Wellington Film Festival in New Zealand. The film was also banned for a while in Lebanon for being "offensive to Iran and Islam". Amazing. Don't these people realise that you can't buy this kind of publicity? Clearly it's a film that should be seen.
However that doesn't mean I think it's particularly good. Important, yes. However let's be blunt here. It's also a French movie. There are two stories being told in this film: (a) Iran, and (b) Marjane Satrapi. The former was fascinating and gave me a new perspective into a culture that seems more alien to me as a Westerner than almost any other in the world. Headhunters in New Guinea are less incomprehensible than religious extremists, not to mention less threatening. However there's nothing particularly interesting about Satrapi herself. This doesn't matter in the slightest when she's caught up in a whirlwind of bloody social change, but it's more of a problem later on. The second half of the film is more about the men in Satrapi's life and her struggle with her sense of personal identity. Sad to say, this is a bit crap. This is still a film which needs to be seen, but be prepared for it to lose a bit of steam later on.
Of course I realise it's a true story, but that doesn't mean that the film still can't have a dramatic shape. That's what makes Persepolis a lesser work than the two other examples I cited earlier. Its powerful stuff is all at the beginning. Admittedly Wild Swans theoretically has a not dissimilar shape, but that's the story of multiple generations spanning almost a century. Persepolis spans about fifteen years and is more or less telling the story of a teenager. I'm still glad I got the extra perspective that comes from taking us through the Iran-Iraq war into peacetime afterwards, but if you're going to take on that kind of scale then the film suffers from not being able to continue through into something like the year 2020 or 2030. Maybe in fifty years time, Satrapi will make a sequel? That would make this a much more substantial piece of work.
I'm being harsh on an important film, though. All the early stuff is astonishing. We begin with life under the Shah and some historical perspective that goes right back to the Shah's father gaining power in a coup d'etat in 1925. This part is critical of the British, but there's quite a bit more they could have said here. Dr Massadegh was elected prime minister in 1951 and made himself popular in Iran by nationalising their oil and petroleum industry. The response of Winston Churchill and the British and American governments was to authorise Operation Ajax, which was successful and marks the date when America first overthrew another country's elected civil government. (We'd spent the preceding few centuries invading half the globe, obviously.)
Coming up to date, i.e. 1978, we learn that Satrapi's family is educated and liberal. They hate the Shah's regime and support the revolutionaries when they start demonstrating against them. However soon enough they learn that religious fundamentalists are even fonder than their predecessers were of taking political prisoners, including Satrapi's uncle. He's a Communist who believes in liberty. They execute him. Then the Iran-Iraq war begins and the carnage goes to another level, although not much of it directly affects Satrapi. We only hear about it. One of the houses in her street gets blown up, but she's not in the front line for Saddam's poison gas attacks or anything like that. We do see her family saving a neighbour's child from going off to walk across minefields, though.
However that's all history book stuff. What's stranger and weirder is to see the religious totalitarianism taking hold, with gun-toting teenagers making accusations about you in the street because they don't like your tie. It's like a fever. It's scary to see people being so enthusiastic about embracing these intolerant new values. The film doesn't try to explain this directly, but one does have a parallel in the form of one of the great portrayals of a mad child on the rampage. Satrapi as a little girl is awesome. She'll passionately believes everything she's told, to the extent that she's capable of deciding that it's the right thing to do to chase after her friends to hammer nails into their eyes. (That's the scene where she was seeming to approve of the secret police torturing people.) She'll be consumed by any stupid idea that gets into her head, although she's never completely out of control. It's a brilliant portrayal. She's real! Movie kids are never like this. Admittedly the film might seem to be playing child-Satrapi a bit younger than her years, but I suspect that's what she really was like back then.
Satrapi's just lucky to have educated parents who can tell her when she's being bigoted, stupid or just ill-informed. There but for the grace of God, and so on. Satrapi occasionally has private conversations with Him, by the way. He's got a big beard and he shows up in her bedroom when he's got a bit of spare time.
Anyway, we see the changes in society happen, even as people still listen to Iron Maiden or watch Schwarzenegger films. Men with guns will search your house for alcohol and playing cards. Burqas are introduced. Satrapi has opinions on how the new regime regards women and sometimes expresses them. The most horrifying thing I discovered is that if a young woman is to be executed, then she'll have a forced marriage and be raped beforehand because it's illegal to kill a virgin.
"He's so religious now he won't look a woman in the eye." Where's the virtue in that?
I'm really glad I saw all that. I've been harsh on the second half of the film, but I'm glad I saw that too. It can be funny, as for instance with Satrapi's account of the physical changes in going from girlhood to womanhood. Her life at French school in Vienna (sent abroad for safety by her parents) is vaguely dissatisfying, but that's deliberate and a reflection of how she herself comes to perceive it. Furthermore she's still in touch with home and we still want to know what's going to happen to both her and her country, so the film's still engaging and very watchable even if it's lost some of the power it had earlier.
I should mention the visuals at some point. It's faithfully reproducing a crude art style, but this in itself is a point of interest and I found it a rather lovely film to watch.
This is a fascinating story. It's full of significance for us in the West, for instance in portraying a world where an obsession with public morality has got completely out of control. The most ironic anecdote I know about this film is the campaign by over 250 parents in the Northshore School District in America to have it deemed obscene and banned from school curriculums. If people like that ruled the world, we'd be living in a Christian Iran. It was Oscar-nominated for Best Animated Film and France even put it forward as its official entry for Best Foreign Language Film, but it didn't make the Academy's shortlist. Personally I'd agree with that. It's lively and accessible. It needs to be watched, anyway.