If Peanuts ever had evolved to punk music, politics and aching adolescent angst, it might have resembled Persepolis. Along with Ratatouille, it’s one of two Oscar-nominated titles for Best Animated Feature Film, assuring the award’s winner on Sunday will have a French flavor.
A French-language story of modern Iranian culture, this mostly black-and-white animated autobiography is adapted from Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novels of the same name. (Satrapi, who now lives in Paris, is the film’s co-director, co-writer and lead character.)
Here, the Red Baron is real, bombing buildings in young Marjane’s home of Tehran. The film opens in 1978 as the precocious 9-year-old follows her revolutionary family’s call to end the Shah of Iran’s monarchic rule. Fascinated by the underground nature of revolution and protest, Marjane comes to learn hard lessons of the Islamic world’s political and social processes.
Keeping with the Medusa-head hierarchy of Middle East oppressiveness, the Shah gives way to the Ayatollah Khomeini. By the time Marjane hits her teens — where Michael Jackson tapes hit the black market and classroom debates erupt over whether the Bee Gees or ABBA reign supreme — the culture has grown increasingly oppressive to her free-spirit ways. Marjane’s parents send her to Vienna, but it doesn’t mean this global traveler will become worldly wise. Even in safer havens, Marjane finds that the ruddy matters of daily life intrude on her dreams, desires and better nature.
Persepolis constantly is composed with its source’s visual and thematic weight in mind. Satrapi and co-writer / director Vincent Paronnaud conjure horrifying apocalyptic imagery akin to Todd McFarlane or Gerald Scarfe — clouds on a background that looks like thick card stock, mortars exploding into handprints of smoke, silhouetted atrocities. Yet it’s also never so stylized as to lose its gentle humanity, as in Marjane’s storybook-like talks with her god.
Persepolis becomes less interesting, and more predictably episodic, once Marjane exits Iran and embarks on a series of failed relationships (one man gay, one unfaithful, one with whom she settles too soon). Yet it retains powerful ties to the first act’s look at how spiritually wearying the give-and-take of constant anarchy can grow, especially for a child seeking her identity.
It’s not surprising that frequent Steven Spielberg collaborator Kathleen Kennedy was drawn to Persepolis as an executive producer. The film is on the level of Spielberg’s tales of children forced to mature beyond their preparations and achieves an ambition and lyricism rare to animation.