Growing up as an opinionated, mouthy, intelligent girl isn’t easy anywhere, heaven knows, but coping with adolescence against the backdrop of the rise of the Ayatollahs in Iran adds whole new levels of complication to those awkward years. And it’s that balance of quotidian personal struggles taking place alongside the larger scope of political upheaval and repression that makes “Persepolis” such a riveting film.
In French with English subtitles, and mostly in black and white, “Persepolis” isn’t exactly going after the “Bee Movie” crowd — in fact, it’s probably not suitable for kids under 12 or so. But adventurous teens and their parents should absolutely check the film out, since Marjane Satrapi’s tale is one of those life stories that becomes universal by being so very specific.
Based on Satrapi’s acclaimed graphic memoir — the film is co-directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud — “Persepolis” tells a unique coming-of-age story without indulging in sentimentality or revisionism. Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) grows up in Teheran, encouraged in her pursuits by her intellectual and politically active parents. We see the heady days of the Shah’s overthrow, a sort of Middle Eastern Prague Spring, followed quickly by the radical Islamic takeover.
Even though Marjane is forced to begin covering her head in public, the strong women in her family — her mother is voiced by Catherine Deneuve, Mastraoianni’s real-life mom; French film legend Danielle Darrieux voices Marjane’s grandmother — encourage her to be strong-willed and an independent thinker.
Alas, 1980s Iran doesn’t exactly look kindly on rebellious teenage girls, and Marjane is sent away to study in Europe. While most movies would portray this escape as a happy ending, Marjane finds it difficult to fit into Western culture, effectively making her a woman without a country. But what young person can’t relate to feeling like an outsider both at home and in the world at large?
Borrowing from the visual style of Satrapi’s original books, the film offers faces that look like illustrations but are nonetheless evocative and human, even if not photo-realistic. The monochromatic scheme works effectively and never feels drab — if anything, the occasional splashes of color almost feel garish and vulgar, intentionally so, compared to the elegant sleekness of the rest of the film. (It’s not unlike watching the color sequences that pop up in the middle of “The Women” or “She’s Gotta Have It” and wishing the movie would go back to black and white.)
“Persepolis” doesn’t pretend to have grand answers about Iran or geopolitics; it tells a very simple story about an ordinary girl caught in extraordinary circumstances. Yet there’s nothing ordinary about Satrapi’s skills as an artist or storyteller, and her film does justice to both of those gifts. One can only hope that the genre of animated memoirs for adults takes off — Alison Bechdel’s award-winning graphic autobiography “Fun Home” is surely waiting in the wings.