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Alex Cox returns... Straight to Hell

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It’s an understatement to say Persepolis comes from a totally different place than the two other movies also nominated for this year’s Best Animated Feature Oscar, Ratatouille and Surf’s Up. Persepolis, by a long shot, has a lot more on its mind than simply serving as a giddy popcorn entertainment with a feel-good message.

Eye of the Storm

Color fades when satrapi flashes back to Iran
Color fades when satrapi flashes back to Iran

Persepolis is based on the two-volume graphic novel by Iranian artist Marjane Satrapi. The story revolves around her experiences growing up during the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s and 1980s. With revolutionary fervor making an enormous impression on one side and her parents providing a more rational explanation for the events unfolding around her on the other side, Marjane grew up during a particularly chaotic time in Iran’s history.

That’s when the Shah was deposed, Ayatollah Khomeini exploited discontent among the populace, and American hostages were held captive for 444 days.

As a natural progression of youth, Marjane began to question what was going on around her and the naturally rebellious nature of a teenager collided with the increasingly oppressive stance of her government. In 1980 it became mandatory for women to wear the veil, a garment that stands as a complete clash to Marjane’s punk sensibilities.

Given their daughter’s proclivities, Marjane’s parents sent her to live with a family friend in Austria when she was 14. After four years of eye-opening experiences, Marjane returned to Iran in hope of settling into a stable life. After finding friends’ lives moving in different directions, marriage proving to be unsatisfactory, and oppression having taken its toll on the citizens, Marjane found herself stuck in a most unenviable situation.

In 1994, she left Iran and moved to France, effectuating the exile that serves as the framework for Persepolis. The movie begins and ends in Orly airport in Paris; those scenes are peppered with color; the rest of the movie features a black-and-white world.

Eye of the Tiger

There are a lot of ideas and themes running through Persepolis. One key theme stems from a lesson taught by Marjane’s grandmother (Danielle Darrieux, 8 Women), who would repeatedly stress the importance of integrity. More easily appreciated than implemented, Marjane (Chiara Mastroianni, Ready to Wear) goes through quite a number of experiences, including a harrowing episode living on the streets of Vienna in the winter, a pivotal time when that integrity, and its accompanying sense of responsibility, would be put to the test.

Grandma also advises Marjane that she always has a choice and states, quite bluntly, that if people hurt her, it’s because they’re stupid.

While those concepts are extremely true at the most fundamental, human level, they’re also of an independent, free-spirited mindset that’s tough to put into practice when the surrounding culture seeks to suppress individuality and independent thought. While it was bad enough the old regime held 5,000 prisoners, the new one’s collection swells to 300,000.

In terms of simply trying to grow up, it’s certainly hard enough for teenagers to be teenagers in the most idyllic of situations, but when buying a bootleg tape of Julio Iglesias or Abba on Gandhi Avenue in Tehran becomes a hush-hush, clandestine transaction on par with buying drugs from some seedy street pusher in Amsterdam, that’s certainly not conducive to a lighthearted youth.

Matters are even more challenging for girls when their tumultuous environment dictates they will go to Hell for showing too much skin and that girls shouldn’t run because their butts move provocatively (it’s beside the point that the men enforcing those laws shouldn’t be looking at girls’ - completely covered - butts to begin with).

Eye of the Soul

Satrapi describes Persepolis as a story that expresses her personal point of view tempered by her own experiences rather than a full-blown autobiographical account. Regardless of the tweaks to reality and poetic licenses taken (including a fanciful take on romance that goes comically sour), Persepolis serves as a touching look at people trying to move on with their lives even as surrounding forces try to keep them locked down. While most movies serve as terrific fodder for discussion over a post-show beverage, Persepolis lends itself to a post-show walk, one that reinforces, despite certain grievances of details, how good things are here compared to there.

While the overwhelming commercial success of Pixar sent all the major studios reeling and abandoning their traditional animation efforts in favor of more pristine, three-dimensional computer-animated projects, Persepolis steps into the fray as a stellar example of an age-old concept that Hollywood needs to once again take to heart: It’s about the story, stupid.

Yes, Pixar’s movies are gorgeous, but their success ties in more precisely to the fact that they also tell great stories. It’s not all about the technology used in the animation process, it’s about the soul at the center of the movie.

And Persepolis is loaded with soul. It’s a punk’s soul. It’s a grandmother’s soul. It’s a loving family’s soul.

That soul, coupled with a smart sense of political and social satire, wraps important messages about war, love, and oil into a deceptively simple and innocent presentation. Persepolis, whether on the page or on the screen, is a work of art that works so successfully both because of what it shows and what it does not show.