Comic books sure have come a long way since the days of “Famous Funnies” and “Superman.” Now a widely accepted and somewhat respectable form of literature – I believe “graphic novels” is the preferred nomenclature – this serialized form of storytelling has been given free reign in terms of both content and style, with topics as diverse as high-school skepticism (“Ghost World”), Jack the Ripper (“From Hell”) and the nature of the art itself (“American Splendor”).
Just how far and high the form can reach may be best materialized by Marjane Satrapi’s award-winning work Persepolis, which tells the autobiographical tale of Satrapi’s youth during the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the troubling years that followed.
It is a topic that is decidedly high-brow – especially for an art-form that prides itself on superheroes – yet its visuals and cheeky dialogue more than make up for all hints of pretension, resulting in an animated film for adults that is truly unlike anything that’s ever been made before.
We are introduced to the bright, rambunctious Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) in the midst of the Shah dictatorship of Iran in the late-70s as she proclaims her partnership with God and dreams of making a difference in an all-too messed-up world.
As revolts and hostilities continue to mount, Marjane becomes educated in her family’s proletariat leanings by her fevered communist uncle Anouche (Francois Jerosme) and free-thinking grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), who teaches her the values of independence and integrity.
When a new fascist Islamic regime is put in order and Anouche is executed for his leftist ideology, Marjane becomes a rebel with a cause, fighting to preserve the memory of her uncle and inspire progress in a devolving society.
She begins rocking Nike shoes and listening to Iron Maiden in an effort to align herself with the rebels and prove that “Punk is not ded [sic],” earning her the contempt of her traditionalist teachers and the awe of her classmates.
With the advent of the Iran-Iraq war, Marjane is sent to school in France on account of her parents’ fear for her safety, and it is here that she undergoes a physical and emotional transformation that begs her to question everything she had once believed in. This bout of depression inspires her to return to Iran, where her narcissism and existential views are quelled only by her selfless grandmother.
Facing an increasingly repressive regime, Marjane is forced to accept the frigid political condition of her homeland and accept revolution as a wholly personal undertaking, evoking a sense of maturity and understanding on her part that was notably lacking in her character during the film’s earlier chapters.
Adapting her work for the screen, Satrapi is able to avoid compromising the artistic vision of the source material and what results is a film that is at once breathtaking and imperfect.
While I’ve yet to read the actual novels, it’s clear that the film is an almost direct interpretation of them, following a distinctly episodic format that is unwarranted on the silver screen. It is as if every fifteen minutes a new incident arises and is then solved, which complicates the significance and effectiveness of the film’s finale.
As the nature of cinema continues to bend and adapt to changes in technology and popular culture, the graphic novel continues to prove its inspiration and promise to the medium. This transition is at an awkward stage, at times brilliant (“Sin City”) and other times shameful (“300”), but if “Persepolis” is any indicator, then the future looks bright.
Milbrand is a member of the class of 2008.