An Iranian's memoir in pen and ink

Posted: January 18, 2008

Through revolution and repression, art was Marjane Satrapi's lifeline.

She was 9 in 1978 when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was deposed and the Islamic Revolution rocked her native Iran; 25 in 1994 when she left her homeland for France, where she put her youth into personal and historical perspective.

Persepolis, the superb film based on Satrapi's graphic memoirs of the same name, is a riveting odyssey in pictures and words. It's unlike any journal you've read or any animated movie you've seen.

In pen-and-ink it chronicles young Marjane's exhilaration at the fall of the shah and her confusion at the rise of the mullahs who demanded that females wear head scarves. Its flat cartoon panels capture the human dimensions of the political and social convulsions that resulted in Iran's transformation from a monarchy to an Islamic state engaged in a bloody, prolonged war with Iraq.

Working with codirector Vincent Paronnaud, Satrapi draws her story in a contrasty black-ink-and-white-chalk style that might best be described as Betty and Veronica Meet Matisse.

The charm of Satrapi's imagery, the whimsical cross-hatchings and arabesques, makes it easier to digest its serious subject matter. In a cosmic irony, Marjane's teen rebellion coincides with the authoritarian rule of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Like many Iranians after the Islamic Revolution, Marjane leads a double life, outwardly observing the edicts of the religious regime while inwardly conducting private dialogues with God and also Karl Marx, who resembles God with wavy hair.

She may wear the obligatory head scarf, but in the privacy of her bedroom she listens to Iron Maiden bootlegs. She may live in a religious culture stripped of ornaments, but she draws from (and draws on) a tradition of Persian art rich in embellishments. Satrapi's elaborate renderings of historic Persia are a reproach to the stripped-down life in modern Iran.

In the film, Marjane's voice, by turns insolent and wry, is supplied by actress Chiara Mastroianni, whose real-life mom, Catherine Deneuve, voices Marjane's mother. Danielle Darrieux, Deneuve's mother in so many films that they are related by celluloid if not by blood, is the voice of Marjane's beloved grandmother, a realist who perfumes life with fragrant jasmine blossoms. "A first marriage is a dry run for the second," Grandma advises Marjane when the younger woman contemplates divorce.

The film, mostly black-and-white figures against atmospheric gray and greige grounds that provide texture and depth, opens with a color sequence of the adult Marjane in the waiting room of Paris' Orly Airport. From the time the shah falls, Marjane is in a holding pattern, waiting for takeoff.

In flashbacks, we see the story of the free-spirited youngster, rebellious teenager and student nonconformist. Fearing her expulsion from school, Marjane's parents send her to Austria, where she encounters nihilists and racists.

Poetically and pointedly, Satrapi the artist contrasts the repressiveness of post-revolutionary Iran with the permissiveness of the democratic West.

Her Marjane finds both imperfect. While her freethinking family accepts her, she finds her beloved homeland unlivable. When she studies Botticelli's Birth of Spring at art school in Tehran, the mullahs censor the Primavera's naked body. How's an aspiring artist supposed to learn anatomy?

Persepolis is as universal as a coming-of-age story and as unique as a fingerprint, whorled, intricate, endlessly fascinating. And indescribably touching.


Persepolis **** (out of four stars)

Directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. With the voices of Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux. Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics. In French with subtitles.

Running time 1 hour, 35 mins.

Parent's guide: PG-13 (mature themes including war, torture, sexual reference, marijuana use and profanity)

Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse and Showcase at the Ritz Center/NJ


Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/.

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