Fundamentalism, fanaticism and terrorism – these are the three elements making up the axis of evil which Marjane Satrapi hoped to disassociate from Iran when she started her graphic novels Persepolis – The Story of a Childhood and Persepolis – The Story of a Return. Like her fellow countrymen who refer to themselves as Persian instead of Iranian in order to conjure up images of beautiful cats and carpets rather than holocaust threats and gay deniers, Satrapi was fed up with the narrow vision of her birthplace that has been projected to the outside world. She wanted to tell the tale of a country that has battled for an enlightened independence in the face of the oil-hungry West and the puritanical elements from within. Converted for the cinema screen, Persepolis is a marvel. The original drawings have been expertly rendered for film and the pace is punchy despite both novels being thrown in together.
As with films such as VíÂctor Erice’s Spirit of the Beehive the film begins by showing social conditions and war-time history through the eyes of a child. Satrapi’s depiction of herself as a forthright, stubborn and fanciful child who believes she is the next holy prophet and later dons a headscarf to march around her house chanting, ‘Down with the Shah’ is utterly enchanting. But disturbing also, insofar that the views of those around her can easily translate into misunderstanding and cruelty. In one scene, armed with a handful of nails and a mindful of torture techniques she gets her friends to gang up against a boy whose father she hears was in the Shah’s secret police. Similarly, Satrapi shows a ‘my dad is bigger than your dad’ one-upmanship among the children as they compare the heroism of various family members imprisoned for their political beliefs.
As she grows up, her political conscience sharpens and she finds herself the subject of scorn from the so-called Guardians of the Revolution who catch her buying pop music records on the black market, and from the teachers at school who object to her questioning their authority and their doctrine. This is a story that is as much about the growth of a nation as about Satrapi’s growth as an individual as she faces life in a country so restricted by political and religious wrangling.
With the fundamentalists in power growing ever more oppressive, her parents send her to school in Austria where she falls in with an outcast crew of hippies and nihilists. With this chapter, the films takes on a slightly lighter tone, charting her adolescent life with its romances and insecurities. Whatever darkness there is here comes not from the regime outside but from within, from Satrapi feeling isolated, heartbroken and homesick. One of the film’s most touching moments comes when, alone during the festive period, she receives a phone call from her parents in Iran. Both parties feign an upbeat tone to avoid revealing how bitterly unhappy the distance makes them feel.
With her character’s eventual return to Iran and her consequent depression, Satrapi makes clear the dichotomy between feeling free yet lonely in Europe, and feeling oppressed yet surrounded by her family in Iran. Displaced and caught between two cultures, she feels like an outsider in both places.
The film’s ultimate strength lies in its ability to engage with heavy politics and powerful emotions with the lightest of touches. Not only does the animated form convey the issues with style, but even the most challenging parts of the film are made easier to watch thanks to Satrapi’s mischievous sense of humour. As she claws her way out of depression, a heavily-accented rendition of ‘Eye of the Tiger’ takes over the soundtrack to hilarious effect for example, while the most ridiculous elements of the Islamic regime are brilliantly lampooned by the children in Satrapi’s school.
With its warm-hearted, individual vision of the many different people that make up the nation of Iran, the film sharply rebukes simplifications of the ‘axis of evil’ type. In that perspective, Satrapi’s original goal has been victoriously achieved.
Read the interview with Marjane Satrapi.