In 1979 Marjane is a nine-year-old Bruce Lee nut in Tehran. The fall of the Shah is cause for celebration in the Satrapi household: Marjane's family of cosmopolitan Marxists has suffered imprisonment and intimidation. The revolution is a time of hope and opportunity. But it doesn't last. Religious fundamentalists seize control, Marjane and her friends are forced to wear the veil, and social freedoms are curtailed. Worse is to come when Iran goes to war with Iraq.
This brilliant French-Iranian movie (which has been dubbed into English by the original stars Chiara Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve, plus Sean Penn, Gena Rowlands and Iggy Pop) is probably the least conventional nominee for Best Animated Film since the category was introduced into the Oscars a few years back. We're a long way from rodent foodies and surfing penguins - even if it does hark back to that old Disney standby, the coming of age film. Co-directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, based on Satrapi's series of autobiographical graphic novels, Persepolis uses the simple bold caricatures we're familiar with from newspaper cartoons, but at any given moment it threatens to descend into inky expressionist gloom.
The discrepancies between life in the public and the private spheres constitute your basic teenage rite of passage, but here the stakes are extreme. Persecution and death are real possibilities. Yet the film never succumbs to the melodramatic impulse that engulfs The Kite Runner. Satrapi keeps her story moving briskly, and even moments of extreme danger are handled with self-mockery and satire.
Outspoken and rebellious, the teenage Marjane goes through a punk phase and buys contraband Michael Jackson cassettes on the black market, but she has to talk fast when she's accosted on the street by two women whose billowing chadors make them look like wraiths.
As the 1970s feminist slogan had it, "the personal is political", but in a theocracy the political is also inescapably personal. The film folds a pocket history of Persia into Marjane's sentimental education, which is a very useful primer given Iran's renewed importance in world affairs, but in many ways the small domestic details are the most telling, like the way a routine police check sends the whole family into panicky emergency mode in case their illicit booze is discovered.
Nor is our heroine's ordeal over when her family sends her into exile to Europe. She may be safe from bombs here, but her cultural confusion and loneliness leave her on the very edge of despair.
As it goes on this becomes a story about conformity and individualism, and it's worth noting that Marjane is both more readily recognizable, and more of an individualist than a lip-service rebel like Ellen Page's Juno MacGuff. Her relationship with her wise and wicked grandmother (voiced by Gena Rowlands) is a glowing testament to an indomitable female spirit, and when Chiara Mastroianni as the older Marjane breaks into a croaky karaoke rendition of Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" it's hard to suppress a cheer.
Titles related to this article