The Big Picture
- Persepolis is a coming-of-age story that takes place during the Islamic Revolution in Iran, highlighting the political and social unrest experienced by the main character.
- The film beautifully balances the personal narrative of Marjane’s growth with the historical context of Iran, showing the consequences of political change and the complexities of social transformation.
- Persepolis faced controversy and protests from the Iranian government due to its portrayal of certain political movements, but it was widely acclaimed and received several prestigious awards.
What does it even mean, to come of age? The process of growing up can look entirely different from one person to the other, and even more so when we factor in social and political contexts. As much as similarities can be found between kids in various parts of the world, there is no doubt that coming of age in, say, a fascist state in the middle of a war and modern-day Sacramento are completely opposed experiences. And, yet, when it comes to movies, we don’t hesitate to call both Jojo Rabbit and Lady Bird coming-of-age stories. There is, indeed, a constant underlying both tales, and that is that the main character goes through some transformative experience that allows them to gain some level of new understanding about how the world works. Still, there’s no denying that some stories that we categorize as “coming of age” deal with a lot more than the not-so-simple process of becoming an adult. Some stories, much like the lives of numerous kids across the globe, are marked by war, trauma, and political unrest. And, when it comes to movies, perhaps no work finds a balance between coming of age and political debate quite like 2007’s Persepolis.
Written and directed by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis chronicles nearly 15 years in the life of a young girl living through the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Based on the autobiographical graphic novel of the same name by Satrapi herself, the movie tells the story of a curious child growing into a woman, and also the story of a country undergoing deep and disturbing political transformations in the span of a person’s adolescence. With a stylized, largely black-and-white animation that mimics the look of Satrapi’s comics and furthers the flashback framing of the film, Persepolis is a one-of-a-kind work of art that tackles complicated themes ranging from the discovery of rock’n’roll to the rise and fall of authoritarian regimes. More often than not, it tackles how such topics can intertwine.
What Is ‘Persepolis’ About?
If we were to remove the political context from Persepolis, it would be just any old movie about a kid coming of age and dealing with the seemingly never-ending turmoil that is growing up. Over the course of the movie, young Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes and Chiara Mastroianni in different stages of her life) goes from being curious to the point of being an annoying and somewhat overeager child to a depressed adult who feels suffocated in the confines of her life. She leaves her parents’ house, makes friends, dates, experiments with drugs, enjoys both the Bee Gees and Iron Maiden, goes to college, gets married, and discovers the wonders of aerobics. She also learns about social and economic structures from her uncle Anouche (François Jérosme), about the importance of integrity from her grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), and about the history of her country and her family from her parents (Catherine Deneuve and Simon Abkarian).
It’s what’s to be expected from a good and healthy adolescence. But, alas, there is no removing Marjane’s history from its political context. In Persepolis, growing up is a dangerous enterprise, closely monitored by the ever-watchful eyes of Iran’s fundamentalist Revolutionary Guard. Marjane’s experimentation with boys, drugs, and even music is done either in exile, away from her parents, or in dangerous, clandestine hangouts at the homes of friends who put their own lives on the line for just a little bit of fun.
In a scene of Persepolis, little Marjane and her friends chase down a boy with nails because his father is a member of the secret service that has allegedly tortured and killed millions of people. In another, a man dies trying to jump off the roof of a building after the police break into a forbidden co-ed party. Even during her teenage years in Austria, the country to which her parents choose to send her in the hopes of shielding her from the war and the Revolution’s rage, Marjane’s experiences are marked by trauma, prejudice, and solitude.
And, yet, Marjane is privileged in the sense that she ultimately has the choice of rebuilding her life elsewhere: the movie ends with her moving to France after returning to Iran for a short period of time. She’s also privileged in that her family’s social status and political involvement allow her to see the drama of the Shah’s downfall and the rise of the Islamic Republic in its full scale – and, in that sense, so are viewers. Marjane’s grandfather was related to the king who ruled the country before the Western powers supported the Shah’s claim to the throne, and many of her relatives, especially her uncle Anouche, are political activists, liberals, or communists, who enjoy a brief moment of freedom in the days between the end of the monarchy and the beginning of a theocracy. The focus on the story of Marjane’s family, particularly in her late childhood and early teens, gives us a good view of what happened in Iran between the ’70s and ’80s and paints a complicated picture of social change. The ugly truth, Persepolis tells us, is that, if we’re not careful, the defeat of an authoritarian regime can result in the victory of another.
How Was ‘Persepolis’ Received When it Debuted?
Persepolis’ greatest strength lies in how it balances the focus in a very personal coming-of-age story with its overarching context of events of historical importance not only to Iran but to the world as a whole: the Islamic Revolution, and the Iran-Iraq war. But such careful, politically charged storytelling did not come without a price. During its time in the festival circuit, Persepolis was more than once protested and boycotted by the government of Satrapi’s home country, the direct heirs of the Revolution that turned her life upside-down when she was just a kid.
When Persepolis was shown at Cannes, Iranian officials accused the film of Islamophobia, even though Satrapi and Paronnaud never take aim at Islam as a whole, but at a specific political movement that uses religion as a means of furthering its power. Persepolis was also banned from the Bangkok International Film Festival after the Iranian government protested its inclusion in the program. “I was invited by the Iranian embassy to discuss the matter and we both came to mutual agreement that it would be beneficial to both countries if the film was not shown,” festival director Chattan Kunjara said at the time. The film also faced trouble with the governments of other countries besides Iran, with Lebanon briefly banning it due to it being allegedly offensive to Islam and Tunisia fining a TV station for showing “a film that disturbs public order and threatens proper morals”. In Iran, Persepolis had only a handful of screenings on DVD.
Outside the Middle East, Persepolis has gone mostly unchallenged, but the graphic novel on which it was based has appeared more than once in lists of banned books in the United States. Commenting on the subject, Satrapi has condemned bans both from a conservative perspective, which is more concerned with the novel’s sexual content and fantastic depictions of torture born out of a child’s mind and from a liberal standpoint, which, much like the Iranian government, accuses the book of Islamophobia. “Banning books is a dive back into the darkest moments in the history of human beings”, the author told Publishers Weekly.
Apart from all this controversy, Persepolis, the movie, has been widely acclaimed, much like the graphic novel on which it is based. The movie has also been pretty successful in festivals and awards, winning the Jury Prize at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival and the César, the biggest prize in French cinema, for Best First Feature Film and Best Adaptation. Persepolis was nominated for Best Animated Feature Film at the 2008 Oscars, but, unfortunately, it lost the prize to Ratatouille. The same happened at the 2008 Annie Awards. The film also kicked off a cinematic career for Satrapi, who has since directed four other feature films, including Chicken with Plums, yet another adaptation of one of her graphic novels, co-directed by Paronnaud, and the Marie Curie biopic Radioactive, starring Rosamund Pike.
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