The most recent issue of The New York Review of Books quotes recently deceased literary critic and writer Elizabeth Hardwick as once telling her creative writing students "There are really only two reasons to write: desperation or revenge."
I tend to agree. And while it's presumptuous to make assumptions about a writer's or an artist's motivations, I wonder how much of the latter is involved in comic artist, illustrator, and now filmmaker Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical "Persepolis," a French-language animated film based off of her acclaimed series of graphic novels. All too often the best vengeance is merely letting the truth be told.
Animated in the simple yet effective style of her graphic novel, "Persepolis" first begins in color, featuring a grown Satrapi in modern times. As she reflects on her past the film switches to the signature black and white imagery of the comic as flashbacks to Iran in the 1970s begin. Young Marjane is an energetic only child born to thoughtful parents, excited by the possibilities of the end of the dictatorship of the Shah.
Initially the revolution is hopeful, with political prisoners such as Marjane's communist uncle being freed. It's not long, though, before he's imprisoned again, this time for only a short time, as he's to be executed. This episode is particularly harrowing as he chooses Marjane to be the one person allowed to visit him in prison before his death.
The repressive nature of life in Iran is clearly depicted as Marjane, her friends, and all women are forced to wear veils. Western culture is pushed underground as we see in a very amusing scene in which Marjane goes to buy bootleg cassettes of American pop music.
When the Iran-Iraq war begins during her teen years in the '80s her parents send her to study abroad in Vienna. As if adolescence were not difficult and confusing enough in and of itself, Marjane is forced to experience these years apart from her family in a country unable to understand her. She struggles to fit in, finding an uneasy home amongst punk and "nihilist" teens. Her time abroad goes downhill as she becomes a young woman. She hits a profound low point eventually becoming homeless.
She returns to Iran for her college years, a decision which returns her to her loving and supportive family - especially her independent and inspiring grandmother - but also to the totalitarian Iranian regime. Finally she is just too strong and rebellious for her native country, unable to submit.
"Persepolis" is, without doubt, a continually compelling, original film. However, it is not a complete success. It's a pretty clear case of a film's subject matter being bigger than what can successfully be covered in a 95-minute film. In an hour and a half we're getting the history and politics of Iran as well as the first 25 years of Satrapi's life. The graphic novels that the film is based on are a total of 352 pages. The rush to cover so much material leaves a film that is certainly intellectually engaging, entertaining, and educational but not as emotionally gripping as is necessary.
In the year that brought us "Juno," with "Persepolis" we should have another smart, spunky, rebellious female protagonist that steals our hearts. The film gets us about halfway there. The character is there, we just don't love her quite as much as Juno. The film is so busy, there's just so much going on, so many subjects being touched upon, that we don't get close enough to Marjane. It might have been more successful if two films had been made, the first focusing on her childhood, concluding with her leaving Iran for Vienna, the second exploring her teen and young adult years in greater depth.
Despite these issues, though, the film is still worth seeing and where it falters emotionally it certainly succeeds visually. The black and white traditional animation is a tremendous success, making for a movie that's never boring to watch. "Persepolis" is nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Film. Its principle competition is "Ratatouille." It's a tough call which should win. "Ratatouille" is probably the better film, granted "Persepolis" was the riskier picture. Better to succeed at something safe or mildly fail at something more original? If the award were to be thought of primarily in the context of animation - if it's a visual contest - then it's even harder since the looks of both are so dazzling. I suppose I'll be rooting for "Persepolis," the underdog of the two.
When it comes down to it vengeance truly is Satrapi's. The Iranian government has very loudly condemned "Persepolis," going so far as to convince the Bangkok International Film Festival to withdraw the film. Despite the film's flaws, whenever any government or system of authority seeks to prevent a film from being seen, a book from being read, or any art from being appreciated, the creator has to know they've done something profoundly right.