Marjane Satrapi's acclaimed 2003 autobiographical graphic novel series has been turned into one of the most complexly moving animated films I've ever seen. Satrapi and her codirector, Vincent Paronnaud, both making their feature-film debuts, take animation back to its hand-drawn roots.
The stark yet fluid compositions, almost all of them in black and white, are nothing like the CGI animation that has virtually overtaken the field. "Persepolis" doesn't have the almost hallucinatory virtuosity of Hayao Miyazaki's work, which is also hand-drawn, but it's a model of how richly personal animation can be in – literally – the right hands.
"Persepolis" follows the childhood and young adulthood of Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes and later, Chiara Mastroianni), an only child raised by caring, intellectual parents (Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian) in the waning days of the Shah's Iran. At first overjoyed at the overthrow of the dictatorship, Marjane's family quickly falls victim to the even worse theocracy. For her safety – she is blisteringly outspoken – Marjane is sent to Vienna at age 14. A stranger in a strange land, she initially tries to hide her Iranian roots. A lover of everything from Michael Jackson to ABBA, she joins up with a clan of trendy nihilists and falls in love twice, and is twice betrayed.
Retreating to the comforts of family, she discovers an Iran where her rampant individualism is smothered. She must wear a veil, and even holding hands in public is a dire offense. Her only solace is her grandmother (voiced by the legendary Danielle Darrieux), who offers up tart life lessons and flaunts her eccentricities – she always smells good because she tucks jasmine into her dress each morning.
A bad marriage sends Marjane into exile yet again, this time to Paris. This is where the real Marjane now lives and works, which explains why "Persepolis," even in the Iranian scenes, is presented in French, with English subtitles.
Somewhere along the way the animation genre became relegated to the nursery, and it's been fighting its way out of the crib ever since. The Japanese, more than anyone else, have led the charge. Just because "Persepolis" deals in the emotions of a young girl is no reason to think it's kid stuff. It takes in everything from the terrors of adolescence to the terrors of totalitarianism and it does so in such a way that just about anybody can relate to it on the deepest levels. This is the rare movie about growing up that seems to have been made from inside out.
It would have been easy for Satrapi to sentimentalize her passage into adulthood but she's too canny and tough-minded for that. She recognizes, without being in any way pretentious about it, that her life story takes in a lot of history – that it speaks for more than herself. It is, in a sense, an essential story of our time – an Iranian woman who is torn between warring cultures and, not finding herself in either, creates her own amalgam.
Marjane is, in the end, a citizen of the world, with all the precariousness that that implies. That she finds humor in her situation is more than anyone could ask. "Persepolis" is revivifying in every way. Grade: A