Weekend!Movies: 'Persepolis' (PG-13)
Unlike most cinematic adaptations of comic books, Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's 'Persepolis' remains an animated film. (This week, in fact, it notched an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film.)
But unlike most current animated films, in which computers are used to create greater dimension and 'reality,' this one remains determinedly flat and, well, cartoony.
All this is to the film's good. Watching it, you might find yourself wondering what a live-action version of Satrapi's acclaimed graphic novels (or, more accurately, graphic memoirs) would be like. The answer, conveniently enough, also is in theaters now: It's 'The Kite Runner.'
Both films share a number of similarities, beginning with depictions of modern cultures turned barbaric in the hands of zealots.
But while 'The Kite Runner' offers bland melodrama and Oscar-preening respectability, this little movie that looks like a comic strip lives on the screen in a way that shames its higher-profile contemporary.
Satrapi's story, in which she comes of age as worse truly does come to worst in her native Iran, is particularly well-served by maintaining the crisp and simple but also fluidly adaptable lines of her comics.
The film's heroine, Marjane (voiced as a child by Gabrielle Lopes and as a teenager and adult by Chiara Mastroianni) goes from Tehran to Vienna, Austria, to Tehran again, and finally to Paris, while her country goes from the dictatorship of the Shah in the late '70s to the brutally repressive theocracy of the ayatollah.
As all this occurs, the boldly linear design and play of blacks, whites and grays adapt in vivid fashion to the horrors of both war and adolescence, and even to the comically opposing visions of a first love during and after the romance.
Just as nimbly, a brief history lesson on the rise of the shah takes the shape of a puppet show while stark, noirish shadow play defines a scene of tension (of which there are plenty in a life under fundamentalist rule).
While the look of the film provides an unlikely but vibrant reconciliation of two of Satrapi's key visual influences, German expressionism and Italian neorealism, the comic-stripped-down style keeps in touch with political cartooning while maintaining a brisk and light sense of humor.
It's what helps keep this memoir from spilling into the tedious self-absorption of the new wave of video narcissism currently plaguing popular culture.
Meanwhile, universal identification with the wrenching turmoil of growing up plays neatly into the more specific political and cultural turmoil portrayed here, creating a wide range of potentially appreciative viewers.
And, like 'The Kite Runner' (in that film's one genuinely successful aspect), it reminds us that Iran, like Afghanistan, was not always the nightmare we think of today.
Appropriately, it does so by filling in the grays that zealotry's black-and-white mind-set can't acknowledge.
- Pat Holmes