The original French version of this adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s sensitive and sharp autobiographical graphic novel picked up the Prix du Jury at last year’s Cannes and was nominated for the animated feature Oscar earlier this year. Now there’s an English-language version, with Sean Penn voicing Marjane’s sensible, caring father,Chiara Mastroianni reprising her role as Marjane, and Gena Rowlands stepping in as Marjane’s worldly wise grandmother with a great line in bitchy, conspiratorial put-downs. Iggy Pop even features as the voice of Marjane’s impressive, radical uncle.
It’s not the voices, though, that make Satrapi’s film so distinctive: that honour goes to her soft black-and-white drawings of characters and foregrounds and her charcoal backgrounds of Tehran or Vienna or Paris. Also distinctive is her precocious child-turned-reflective adult’s eye view of the people around her and the changing fortunes of Iran. Born in 1969, Satrapi’s passage from childhood to adulthood coincided with her country’s own passage from Shah through revolution to Islamic state. Outspoken and disruptive as a smart schoolgirl in the new Iran, Satrapi was sent to a school in Vienna, where she discovered music and men and struggled with the bourgeois apathy of her ‘anarchist’ schoolmates. She later settled in Paris, and it’s a series of inserts, in colour, of her as an adult at Charles de Gaulle airport, reflecting on the past, that gives the film its voiceover and sense of reminiscence.
‘Persepolis’ is realism seen through special eyes. Satrapi’s animation, with its stark monochrome palette and soft edges, allows her to stress the warmth of her family while suddenly lunging into the mood of claustrophobia caused by prying relatives, Iran’s moral police or leering men on the street. The shift from French subtitles, which suited the film’s roots in the graphic novel, to English voices (especially with the political undercurrents of Penn’s involvement) may jar a little with anyone who has seen the original, but that’s a minor quibble. This is a delightful, curious film that indulges in both the personal and the political and provides a potted history of modern Iran through one woman’s experience.