Comic books and animation bear obvious similarities, and the former has provided a lot of fodder for the latter. Hell, my last two reviews were of decent but uninspired adaptations of the famous Hellboy series, and DC has cashed in on the kinship between the two media. But it’s too easy, and too common, to just translate the page to the screen, not keeping in mind how the comics use the unique qualities of the medium and not using the possibilities of animation to actually adapt the story, rather than just translate it. (See my review of The Perks of Being a Wallflower for more discussion about the difference between adaptation and translation.)
But as much as the source material for Persepolis (2007)—Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoir of the same name—utilizes the potential of graphic narratives more than many of the aforementioned DC comics, so too does the movie use the possibilities of animation better than many in the medium. I actually saw Persepolis a few years ago in 2012 and didn’t review it at the time for no good reason, but I’m glad that I held off, because I just read the book and have a better grasp on what makes the animation so powerful. That context is important, because the comparison flatters the movie. The animation reflects Satrapi’s black and white, near-minimalist aesthetic, but adds an expressionist element; the movement of the images reflects Satrapi’s dry humor and forthright narration, but also emphasizes the emotional undercurrent.
The very notion of turning Satrapi’s memoir into a movie is justified, rather than a cheap attempt to capitalize on the success of an amazing book. After all, Satrapi’s life is one of constant motion: the government of Iran changes from subjugation under a Shah, to a brief democracy formed by revolutionaries, to a theocracy run by the Islamic Republic; family members and friends enter and leave Satrapi’s life, like her Uncle Anoush; she moves out of Tehran, to Vienna, back to Tehran, to Paris. Thus, the kinetic nature of film suits her story particularly well, and arguably captures the unrest of her life better than the original book.
The script, co-written by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, intelligently reworks the material as well. It takes Satrapi’s extensive and comprehensive story and smartly pears away details that are interesting but not integral to the film’s central narrative: Satrapi’s life and personal growth. But beyond that necessary slimming (five hour animated features aren’t easily marketable), the movie also spends a lot more time in scene. While the book contains substantial narration in the form of text blocks, that information is expressed through character interactions and purposeful animation. While the heavy narration works for the book—because it allows Satrapi to maintain control of the telling of her story—the change in narrative style gives the movie a stronger sense of immediacy, making it feel more cinematic.
Still, for all of the changes, a lot of Persepolis‘s power is inherited from the book. Satrapi’s story is important for several reasons, including the fact that we just don’t get a lot of stories by and about Iranian women. When I first saw the movie, the diversity in thought of Iran’s citizens that Satrapi captures was enlightening; I didn’t know about how different the country under the Islamic Republic is compared to years past, and the extent to which the people have found ways to quietly resist oppressive elements. Even the title, which refers to the ancient Iranian city, reflects the diversity of the nation’s history. On a more intimate level, Satrapi captures a wide spectrum of characters. Perhaps most importantly, though, the resistance to the regime and society by Satrapi and the women in her life is…well, hers. A controversial aspect of certain feminist groups and mindsets is the need to “save” women from other cultures, therefore muting the voices of people in those cultures. Stories like Persepolis provide resistance to oppression while avoiding that issue by maintaining subjectivity of those who are affected.
Ignoring the political and sociological contexts of Persepolis does not diminish its power and success, however. Satrapi’s life is always engaging, the people in it always interesting, and her deadpan humor injects a story filled with darkness and melancholy with a lot of warmth. Persepolis is a fun movie as much as it is an insightful one, and that’s because Satrapi is an interesting person, period. Even when she acts in ways that upset us—e.g. when she falsely accuses a guy of saying something lewd in order to protect herself from the police—we understand where she’s coming from. She is easy to empathize with because we care about her story.
Persepolis has a lot of depth, both due to its source and because it takes the time to utilize the way the story is told, thus adding dimensions to an already nuanced story. This film is a credit to animation and memoirs, but most importantly, it’s engaging and well-made. It’s a character study that doesn’t avoid using the circumstances to explore themes like sacrifice, identity, and resistance. For anyone but the staunchest of anti-animation folk, Persepolis is must-see cinema.