This review was published in November 2016 in the Cuckoo Review here.
Persepolis is not what it seems. When I told my friends that I was going to see a simplistic animation, mainly in black and white, about childhood in pre-revolutionary Iran, there were plenty of apprehensive faces and not many bids to join me. It went down nearly as well as my previous attempt to get people along to an artsy Hungarian Holocaust film (which, on a side note, was terrific). To be entirely honest, even I thought I was probably in for a bit of a heavy evening. I was very, very wrong.
Persepolis, the cinematic adaptation of the comic-novel of the same title by the Franco-Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi, is as brilliantly entertaining and approachable as it is interesting and informative. The bold and simplistically beautiful illustrations from the book come alive on the screen, rendering the story of Marjane’s childhood through 2D planes and her own reflective narration. First released in 2008, the Side Cinema rescreened the acclaimed animation to accompany the Childhoods photography exhibition on at their gallery.
Growing up in pre-revolutionary Iran and the daughter to well-educated lefties, Marjane is a punk-warrior who loves ABBA and Chuck Taylors as much as the next kid – but she has a political sensitivity that most don’t achieve, even in adulthood. Having campaigned tirelessly against the Shah’s dictatorship, Marjane’s parents welcome the arrival of the revolution – however it soon becomes clear that the Islamic state is not going to be the reprieve it once promised to be. Severe repression follows, as women are forced to don veils, and Marjane’s parents and social circle live their lives under wraps. The cigarettes that were smoked, the wine that was drunk, the ideas that were discussed and the culture that flowed is hidden behind closed doors as prohibition and oppression reign.
But there is laughter in the darkness, as the private counter-culture of their lives refuses to be supressed. This is hysterically shown in a scene where a trusty maid jumps in a bath to press grapes for elicit home-brewed wine, while muttering “God help me.” In lessons at school, where the history of Iran is effectively retaught and replaced with lies and propaganda, Marjane and her classmates doodle offensive drawings of the teachers, hiding their laughter. It’s a small rebellion that is entirely relatable to any teenager across the world.
Sent to be educated in Europe by her parents, to escape the worsening situation in Iran, Marjane encounters misogyny and racism in far crueller undertones than she did at home. Lost, and unable to counter the guilt she feels for leaving her family in a war-torn home, the strong woman who has lived through a revolution and a civil war eventually has her camel’s back broken by an unfaithful boyfriend and a broken heart. Again, Satrapi’s drawings plunge us into Marjane’s emotions, as her love affair is looked back on after the stain of infidelity. Scenes where the lovers drove across star-studded roads in the sky are retold, with a pock-marked youth in a stop-start vehicle driving Marjane across streets of rubbish instead. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, and feels like being plunged into the illustrated diary of a young woman’s heart. The clean lines and simple wiggles of animation manage to convey complex emotions more clearly than the most realistic of close-ups. Marjane returns to Iran, where she is nursed out of depression by her close relationship with her grandma, who shares hilarious pearls of wisdom — putting your breasts in ice-cold water for 10 minutes each day keeps them perky, she’ll have you know.
Although in a setting and context worlds away from 21st century western society, Persepolishas a universal core in its depiction of relationships, family, humanity and what growing up feels like. It’s also very funny — there were multiple moments when the entire cinema laughed out loud. It manages to depict an intense and complicated period of Iranian history while providing an insight into childhood that arguably surpasses films like Boyhood and Diary Of A Teenage Girl. It is a lovely reminder of the fact that good cinema can educate as well as entertain, and that’s before you’ve even considered the beautiful animation. It is going on my list of favourite films, the kind you could re-watch and laugh with over and over, and I’m going to get as many people to watch it as I can. It should be a must-watch and it’s no surprise it won the Academy Award.