Sony // 2007 // 95 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // June 30th, 2008
"Fear lulls our mind to sleep."
Based on Marjane Satrapi's internationally best-selling comic-book memoir, Persepolis is the story of a girlhood in Iran under the morally compromised Shah and then the morally corrupt Islamic state. Though the film's portrayal of the fundamentalist Islamic government was scathing enough to draw Iran's ire, the film has been exceptionally well received throughout most of the world. In America, Persepolis was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, losing out to Pixar's Ratatouille.
Marjane was an outspoken, rambunctious girl who lived in a middle-class family in Tehran. Her parents were certainly no fans of the Shah, who ruled over the country with brutal authority, but they had little idea that he would be deposed and replaced with a hardline Islamic regime. When the Muslims took over the government, people began disappearing, women were forced to cover themselves in long robes, and Marjane, along with her family, clashed with the ubiquitous morality police.
In response, Marjane was sent to Europe for her education. While she enjoyed the freedom of living abroad, life was not perfect on that continent, either. So she decided to return home to her family, and a regime that is inhospitable to free-spirited young women.
Full disclosure: I watched the English-language dub of Persepolis. I know it is a French movie and the version with the French-language soundtrack was the one released in the theaters. However, since filmmakers tapped Sean Penn, Iggy Pop, Gena Rowlands, and Catherine Deneuve (who also lent her to voice to the French-language version) to provide an English-language overdub, I figured that was an implicit invite to monolinguistics like myself to feel free to indulge. I myself recommend American DVD audiences to do the same, as all the Anglo actors submitted affecting performances.
That said, the voices in Persepolis contributed relatively little to the film's effectiveness. For me, and for a large segment of the film's American audience, the movie works best when it is a portrait of a country and society gone mad, rather than a human-interest story regarding the travails of a young woman coming of age.
The first act of the film is intriguing in that it depicts an Iranian society that seems out of step with that the current image of a charter member of the Axis of Evil; in other words, Iran seems like a relatively normal country, populated by those with emotions and values analogous to Americans. This does not just apply to the government -- and kudos to the film for pointing out that the Shah was no man of the people -- but to the inhabitants. Though there is this conventional wisdom among some circles that the Muslim mindset must be incomparable to Westerners, Marjane, her friends, and her family are all rational, caring, fun-loving people; much of the film's interest is generated when they are contrasted against their society's extremist elements: Marjane's uncle is imprisoned by agents of the Shah; the father of one of Marjane's classmates tortures political prisoners; and Marjane's family is in constant danger of serious repercussions at the hands of the morality police.
Another great asset for the film is its graceful black-and-white animation. In stark contrast to Pixar's ornate imagery, Persepolis has employed understated line drawings that perfectly match with the film's earnest familial relationships and the starkness of living in a police state. Persepolis proves how affecting animation can be for dramas.
That said, the film does occasionally digress into portrayals of the general travails of young adulthood that are less interesting than the movie as a whole. Marjane is a compelling character, but her difficulty with European men was far less memorable than the interaction between her family members and that family's interaction with a tyrannical government.
Ultimately, Persepolis is a revelatory work. Its portrayal of Iran -- in both content and style -- is unlike anything most audiences have ever seen. The story is moving and engaging, and the animation is breathtaking. It's that rare film that is both entertaining and enlightening.
The movie somehow manages to be lively and vibrant in black-and-white, and the picture on the DVD captures Marjane's world beautifully. This is a film that one could watch on mute and still be captivated. Both the English and French 5.1 audio tracks are mixed in 5.1 and both sound phenomenal. All the speakers are used to create a sound environment ranging from street noise to Marjane rocking out to her favorite Western music.
There are loads of extras on Persepolis, though unfortunately there is no commentary track by Marjane Satrapi herself, which would likely have been extremely interesting. What we do get is the French-language "The Hidden Side of Persepolis," which is a strong, half-hour making-of that is enlightening and often entertaining. "Behind the Scenes of Persepolis" is a much shorter mini-feature that is largely focused on the English-language dubbing process. The question-and-answer session at Cannes is nearly a half-hour long, and features the film's producers, directors, and some of the vocal stars of the French version.
Persepolis is a funny and moving story of a young woman who lived through Iran's transformation from monarchy to theocracy. Her story is inherently of interest, especially for those ignorant of Iran's recent history. The addition of the beautiful black-and-white animation elevates Persepolis from a merely good movie to one that is nearly great, and certainly memorable.
Review content copyright © 2008 Brendan Babish; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 95 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* "The Hidden Side of Persepolis"
* "Behind the Scenes of Persepolis"
* 2007 Cannes Film Festival Press Conference
* Animated Scene Comparison with Commentary by Marjane Satrapi
* Commentary on Select Scenes by Marjane Satrapi, Vince Paronnaud, and Chiara Mastroianni
* Official Site