Saturday, April 5

Considering "Persepolis"

Beginning during my sophomore year, I took to decorating my room with newspaper clippings. Seemed appropriate for a Journalism major and, more importantly, was very cheap. You might even say it was free. Interesting articles and exceptional photographs from The Spokesman-Review and The New York Times have since graced my otherwise bare walls. Among them is a full-page advertisement for Persepolis, the film adaptation of Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novels. At the time, it represented more of an appreciation for the page design than any particular celebration of the film, which I had yet to see. Fortunately, however, Spokane's new non-profit, art house theater, The Magic Lantern, was able to bring it in for a few weeks, and I was finally able to see this remarkable French film, well deserving of its Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature but unfortunately placed against the equally excellent Ratatouille. Like few other films, Persepolis manages to successfully blend humor and drama and everything in-between, all while steadfastly remaining itself and not pretending to be anything else.

For an element that comes across so simplisticly in the stills, the animation really is brilliant. The black-and-white character designs are faithfully adapted from the original illustrations, no doubt due to the direct work of Satrapi on the film, but impressively infused with spirit by the animators. Motion is so beautiful in this film. Whether it is the young Satrapi practicing Bruce Lee's moves on a cousin or the history of Britain and the Shah re-enacted by marionettes, every movement is clean and distinctive. The serpentine attacks of two older women coming down on Satrapi for wearing Western clothing is a great example of the animators being able to bring personality into their characters so simply.

Which brings me to something curious, something I only realized several blocks after leaving the theater: no direct attacks were ever made upon religion. Given the strict, religiously-based laws of Iran's fundamentalist Islamic government and the prejudices of the Viennese nuns, this was quite the surprise. In fact, barring God's physical apparition a few times and the cross on the wall of Satrapi's room in Vienna, religion was hardly ever explicitly mentioned. Take this as you will, perhaps as a cynical attempt to not alienate potential audience members, but I understand it as an attempt to universalize the film. The problem is not religion but discrimination. Though religion is the particular form through which it appears in Satrapi's life, she does not confuse it for being the only source of oppression. Any force, any person which denies self expression and freedom based on gender or ethnicity or whatever is the problem.

Persepolis is a coming-of-age story. It follows Satrapi's life from child to adult, from Tehran to Vienna and back before the final journey to Paris. More than her failed romances, more than the fall of the Shah and rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Iran, more than anything else, it is her maturation that gives structure to this film. Everything else is just another challenge she must deal with as she grows into adulthood. It is a timely theme for me. I am 20 years old and a junior in college. I am well past the age of consent and a couple of years past when a parent or guardian needed to sign papers with me. I can sire children. Next year I graduate, but I do not feel like much of an adult. Not long ago in America and still in many nations, I would be providing for my own family by now, but I very much remain dependent on my parents. Neither am I giving much to society, except for whatever being a consumer counts for. What does it mean to be an adult?

For Satrapi, adulthood is taking for responsibility for yourself and defining yourself on your own. When she is young, so much of what Satrapi says and believes comes off as parroting. Cute, especially in the bandanna, but parroting nonetheless. In Vienna, she falls in with nihilists and, after them, hippies. Satrapi becomes the people who surround her, and when they fail her, she runs. Through her grandmother's admonitions though, Satrapi begins to become herself. She reads and finds her own reasons for her beliefs. She stops pretending to be French and proudly stands by her Iranian heritage. She stops wallowing in self-pity and faces challenges rather than skirting them. The movie ends with her divorce and flight to Paris. By then has learned all she can from her family and leaves to stand on her own. Then she is an adult.

I do not agree wholly. Undoubtedly, these are good things, self-responsibility and self-definition, but their attainment alone is not enough to make one an adult because an adult is a member of a community. You do not become an adult in isolation but amongst other, through helping them on their own paths to fulfillment or adulthood or whatever. At some point, one must pass the lessons they have learned on to others, lead them further on. Then again, as already written, I am no adult myself and hardly in a position to be defining it, whatever inklings I might have. And not to appear too harsh to Ms. Satrapi, perhaps this film is Satrapi's lesson and its transmission.

Whether this assessment be true or not, it is a film with a few things to say about a few important things: adulthood, freedom, love. It is worth a see and a thought or two. Maybe even a discussion. At the very least, a blog post.

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