Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Persepolis started as a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. It's autobiographical, relating her childhood in Iran during the period when the Shah was deposed and the government that replaced it was (and remains) an Islamic theocracy. This combination of a coming-of-age story set against political turmoil is what gives the story its power. Satrapi's family is politically liberal, so their position relative to the government was always precarious.

Marjane confronted for wearing a Michael Jackson button.

Persepolis is now an animated feature made in France, co-directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud. It's currently playing festivals (The Toronto International Film Festival and the Ottawa International Animation Festival, where I saw it and where it took the award for Best Animated Feature). It is due for release in North America in December in order to qualify for the Oscars. It has already been selected as France's Oscar entry for the category Best Foreign Language Film and of course it will be eligible for a nomination for Best Animated Feature.

The film is a successful adaptation of Satrapi's book and I highly recommend that you see it. Besides being a satisfying experience in itself, it stands in stark opposition to most Hollywood animated features. It's drawn animation. It's black and white. It deals with politics and the real world. It not only has a female protagonist, but as Satrapi is the screenwriter and co-director, it has a genuinely female point of view.

Marjane with her grandmother, one of the most vivid characters in the film.

All of the above qualities are nothing special in live action. I'm sure that the audiences who view Persepolis at live action film festivals will that find it fits easily into the world of independent films and their subject matter. But in the world of animation, Persepolis blazes many new trails and it shows just how provincial animated features are.

Yes, short animated films tackle many of the same themes, but the films are difficult to find and rarely reviewed. Whether we like it or not, features are the coin of the realm when it comes to film, and it's there that audiences and critics focus their attention.

Animation tends to speak metaphorically. If it has a point to make, it places it within a fantasy context. This is one of the things that's kept animation at the children's table. Only a few animated film makers working in long format have grappled with the world as it is: Ralph Bakshi and Paul Fierlinger come to mind.

What Satrapi has done with her first film is to show that animation is capable of more than Hollywood will allow. The film has shattered many tropes of conventional wisdom and proved in its festival screenings that it satisfies audiences. What she's done is to take subject matter that's commonplace in independent films and shown that animation can communicate it successfully. It's depressing that someone without a background in animation can use the medium more broadly than those who have laboured in the industry.

Perspepolis will not be the highest grossing animated film released this year. It may not win any Oscars. But Persepolis is unquestionably the most important animated film of the year in terms of its subject matter and how the subject is treated. Perspeolis suggests a way forward that animation has mostly ignored. I'm not saying that all animated films should be like this one, but what good is a medium that voluntarily avoids dealing with large portions of human experience? That's Hollywood animation in a nutshell.

Director Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer, Places in the Heart, Nobody's Fool) said in a recent interview,
“I believe there are conversations filmmakers have with one another that they don’t have across the table,” said Mr. Benton. “I believe Butch Cassidy [and the Sundance Kid] is a conversation that Will Goldman was having with Bonnie and Clyde. Its a conversation that can only be done through work.”
I'm sure that Marjane Satrapi was focused on bringing her story to the screen as effectively as possible rather than challenging the animation industry. Be that as it may, she has entered the conversation. The question is, will anyone respond?


Michael Sporn said...

Mark, thank you for this review. Though I've read a nuber of mostly positive reviews from film critics, I wanted to see an insightful review of the film as an animated film. Yours certainly answers my request and promises me a movie that I've been looking forward to for some time. It also sounds like the film I've been expecting.

Michael J. Ruocco said...

After all the positive hullabaloo about this picture, I'm pretty curious to see it when it hits the states soon. It looks like a great film! I hope it gets what it deserves... more praise!

Great review, Mark. Your review here is another reason for me to go see it.

Mark Mayerson said...

I really enjoyed the film, but I was so tired in Ottawa that I don't feel I can give the film the detailed review it deserves. I'll probably revisit it here after getting another chance to see it.

While I don't go into detail about the film's stylistic approach, direction,etc. there's no question that it's a beautifully made and definitely worth seeing.

Pete Emslie said...

Despite the fact that the only view of Iran we're fed by the news media is that of a nation ruled by religious zealots and a current president who's a nutcase, the country has produced a remarkable number of great, meaningful films. Somehow, Iranian film directors have produced such gems as:

A Moment of Innocence
The White Balloon
A Time For Drunken Horses
The Circle
Children of Heaven
The Colour of Paradise

These are just the ones I've been fortunate enough to have seen, though I'm sure there are many others that would be equally worth checking out. I particularly recommend the last two on that list, both by the same director, Majid Majidi. Despite the stories they tell of the hardships of people just scraping to get by in their lives, they are absolutely enchanting in the simple joys they also portray. In the end, these two films are quite life affirming. I'm quite keen to see "Persepolis" now, as I believe that Iranian directors have real stories to tell and a unique way of telling them. So unlike most of what comes out of Hollywood these days. Thanks for the heads up, Mark.

Asa said...

It's depressing that someone without a background in animation can use the medium more broadly than those who have laboured in the industry.

I think that works in her favor. Even in comics she did the same thing. She used a beautiful medium to tell her story. Period. She didn't have misconceptions about what a medium is "supposed" to be, like many comickers and guys like John K seem to. In doing so, I think she'll reach and -more importantly- move a large audience with her story

Take that with a grain of salt, tho, since I'm just an outsider looking in :)

Love the blog, man. Always very insightful, inspiring, and eye-opening.