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Farsi From Heaven

A 3-D Girlhood Comes to Life in 2-D

By Bret McCabe | Posted 1/30/2008

It takes a certain degree of brassy confidence to use Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" in a movie. The song is so branded into 1980s (and beyond) moviegoers' heads as the soundtrack to Sylvester Stallone's 1982 escapist American fantasy Rocky III that its opening guitar riff has become an aural punch line. And, oh, how it was used: the typical montage of Stallone's Rocky training to become good enough to take on Mr. T's Clubber Lang. You know: unoriginal macho energy in the service of perpetuating that testosterone dream that sweat and hard work leads to personal triumph. That the song went on to become a sports-event anthem goes without saying.

Persepolis, the animated feature directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi and adapted from Satrapi's four-part comic-book memoir, not only uses "Eye of the Tiger" during a montage and makes it work, but completely recasts its cultural baggage into something else entirely. The whole movie works a similar alchemy with the coming-of-age story and the political-awakening story. It is by turns a silly, girly, surreal, sentimental, and above all sober look at one young woman's life during the Iranian revolution and Iran-Iraq War.

Paronnaud and Satrapi episodically divvy the movie into four sections-Tehran 1978, Tehran 1982, Vienna 1986, and Tehran 1992. Over these years, young Marjane "Marji" Satrapi (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes as a child and by Chiara Mastroianni as a teenager and young adult) lives the life of any young middle-class child of educated, left-leaning parents in the 1970s. Her parents (voiced by Simon Abkarian and Catherine Deneuve, Mastroianni's real-life mother) encourage her individuality and don't decry her popular-culture divertissements: an 8-year-old Marji idolizes Bruce Lee; the early teenager buys black-market Iron Maiden cassettes on Tehran's streets and headbangs in her room with a tennis racket guitar. Mr. and Mrs. Satrapi are those parents many of us remember firsthand, have seen friends and family become in the years since, or have seen depicted in any number of movies or TV shows: loving, nurturing, and encouraging figures who fuel their child's precocious pursuit of knowledge and experience.

Iran in the late 1970s isn't the United States or even the United Kingdom, France, or Germany for that matter. The martial law and eventual deposing of the Shah and the rise of the Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini-and the constricting of liberties under that regime and the ensuing Iran-Iraq War-aren't elided into the movie as scenic backdrops but threaded into the very fabric of Marji's life. Her uncle Anouche was imprisoned under the Shah. Her maternal grandmother (voiced by the great Danielle Darrieux, an actress who has played Deneuve's mother in Jacques Demy's Les Demoiselles de Rouchefort and André Téchiné's Scene of the Crime) tells Marji that her grandfather was descended from royal Qajar blood and a communist. Friends and neighbors seek her politically minded parents' advice for keeping their sons from rushing to become martyrs. And young Marji takes to this volatile time as eagerly and immaturely as any active young mind.

What makes Persepolis such a rich tapestry, though, is its subtle visual panache. It's animated in a superflat 2-D style and almost wholly realized in magic marker-deep blacks and headlights-at-night bright white with only snatches of color and grays decorating this high-contrast world. And it makes for a varied approach. Much of the main story line unfolds in the bold, dense lines and figures similar to Satrapi's original comic book. Other sequences, though, easily move into more fanciful territory: The British-colluded establishment of the Iranian monarchy following a 1921 coup d'état is told as if acted out by shadow puppets; uncle Anouche's early life is a florid dream of an Azerbaijani freedom fighter; executions are seen as a series of blindfolded dominolike figures falling. More memorable are scenes of gas-masked soldiers approaching a group of protesters, the soldiers looking like Kara Walker cutout curios with white circles for eyes, a visual motif cruelly echoed in a slain student's body being raised, his lifeless limbs hanging like black strips of paper while his open dead eye remains a burning white oval.

The harsh visual palette is also a sly way of representing the movie's dominant cultural conflicts as posed in the movie-Western vs. Middle Eastern culture, pro-Shah vs. Islamic republic, Iraq vs. Iran-a black-and-white way of thinking that Marji eventually overcomes. Her story on its broadest level is about realizing that life doesn't reduce to such available categorizations, and that identity is, by necessity, a constantly changing shade of gray.

And in such telling of Marji's story, Persepolis becomes more than just the remembering of how one young woman came to be-it's a defiant declaration of self. By the time Marji sings "Eye of the Tiger"-actually sung by Mastroianni so flatly out of tune and off key that it might as well be a gloriously anarchic karaoke performance-you've been so drawn into her story that the song feels less like a snarky in-joke than almost as rousing as Bikini Kill's "Rebel Girl." Deeply funny and bracingly sad, Persepolis on its surface combines the youthful intimacy of My So Called Life with the political immediacy of The Battle of Algiers to mine territory where the personal and political are so intertwined that you can't talk about one without the other. It's the territory in which you imagine Marji the young woman and Satrapi the author live, a place a growing number of young people in this increasingly polyethnic and geopolitically mercurial world are coming to call home.

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