“Persepolis” is essentially a coming-of-age story, though that description feels a little reductive for a movie as special as this one. It is the memoir of Marjane Strapi, an Iranian woman who was born in 1969 and underwent the travails of adolescence at the same time that her country was struggling through an astonishing revolution. Her perspective is not unique — obviously there were plenty of little girls in Iran in the late ’70s — but she is the only one so far to write a graphic novel based on her experiences and subsequently turn it into an animated film.
That’s right, “Persepolis” is a cartoon, mostly in black-and-white, almost entirely in French (Satrapi lives in France now), and framed around the Iranian Revolution. It is named for the ancient ceremonial capital of Persia, a detail that is not mentioned in the film itself. I don’t think a cartoon has been this hard to market since “Fritz the Cat.”
We begin in Tehran in 1978, where young Marji (voice of Gabrielle Lopes) lives with her parents. She’s a precocious, adventurous tyke, fond of Bruce Lee and Adidas and looking forward to shaving her legs one day. The stories that surround her of political prisoners and government torture are filtered humorously through her naive young eyes.
We learn that her parents are part of the rising tide of people who oppose the Shah, a cruel dictator who (like his father before him) has modernized Iran but callously quashed all dissent. The Shah is forced out, but the system chosen in his place isn’t much better: it’s an Islamic Republic. Suddenly Western culture is “evil” and women must wear head scarves in public.
Marji is entering adolescence now. She has to buy rock ‘n’ roll cassettes from men on the street who sell them as if they were drugs. Her parents (Simon Abkarian and Catherine Deneuve) admire her independence and tenacity. Her saucy, wise old grandmother (Danielle Darrieux) remembers the old days, when she and her sweetheart could walk down the street hand in hand. Now women are vilified and oppressed, while men can do more or less as they please.
Since Marji’s outspokenness keeps getting her into trouble, her parents send her to Vienna, where Mom has a friend. Now a teenager (and voiced by Chiara Mastroianni), Marji bounces from home to home, at one point living with Catholic nuns and hanging out with the disaffected youth of the city. They call themselves anarchists, but of course they’re the high school version, i.e., they just like to wear Goth makeup and throw around words like “nihilism.” She eventually comes back to Iran and goes to an Iranian art school, where the models are covered in robes and Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” has the naughty bits scribbled out.
It’s Marji’s grandmother who teaches her the most important life lessons. Be yourself, she tells her. Be independent. And remember this: “You’ll meet a lot of jerks in life. If they hurt you, remember, it’s because they’re stupid. Forgive them.” That’s good advice.
Narrating the film, Marji calls adolescence “a time of constantly renewed ugliness” — and the same description applies to her beloved homeland. Strapi’s story (which she has adapted and co-directed with Vincent Parannaud) is a bittersweet one, recounting the epic changes Iran has undergone during her lifetime. In 2007, it’s clear the country is still experiencing growing pains.
But because it’s a coming-of-age story, too, “Persepolis” is also full of girl’s-eye-view anecdotes of growing up: ridiculous boyfriends, failed romances, and wanton teenage rebellion. Marji’s story is set at a specific time in a specific place, but the basic elements are the same as they’ve been for girls everywhere throughout history.
B+ (1 hr., 35 min.; French with subtitles; )