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At the Movies: Perceptive Persepolis ****:

When a film is nominated for an Oscar it always starts to make more money. That’s why they invented the Oscars 80 years ago, to drum up excitement for Hollywood productions. All of the five Best Picture nominees are enjoying the bump and perhaps that means that there will be some useful trickle down for Persepolis, one of the three nominees up for Animated Feature.

Persepolis is an oddly compelling coming-of-age story about a smart-mouthed Iranian girl in the early years of the Islamic revolution who is sent out of Tehran to live in Vienna. Her parents feared her precociousness would put her life, and virtue, in danger. They choose to exile her in hopes of her finding a better life elsewhere.

When the daughter must say goodbye to her mother and father she cries. Her parents hold it together and when the young girl looks back they are waving happily goodbye; when she turns back around a second time, her mother has collapsed.

Persepolis takes you off guard with its emotions and fearless examination of not just this Iranian girl’s evolution from innocent to worldly European, but also the decades between the 1970s and now – the rise of the militants, the violence, the oppression, the sexism. This makes it one of the more important films of 2007. Its presence in the Oscar race should give anyone the required motivation to pay money to see it.

Persepolis began as a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, who chronicled her own upbringing in it. It was then made into the film and directed by Satrapi and her husband, Vincent Paronnaud. It is about her country, how it changed, and how she longed to remember her Iranian roots but ultimately abandoned it for a smarter, safer life in Paris.

The story follows Marjane at each awkward, beautiful moment of going from adolescence, falling deeply in love, learning how to be “nonchalant” to all of the cool boys in Vienna, listening to metal rock – she grows up in a world where everyone is free to be who they are but also one that is more judgmental of her, and more to the point, her ethnicity.

Marjane is not a character who is able to control her mouth – it got her exiled out of Iran, and it causes her more trouble as she tries to hold on to her identity even though she clearly is an outsider. Her grandmother warned her before she left that it’s best to ignore stupid people who only want to hurt you with their words. It is a foreshadowing for the hurt that will follow.

It’s ironic that, though this girl was sent away by her parents, and endured being an orphan in a foreign land, she decides that heartbreak is the worst possible tragedy any girl can have. And doesn’t love just do that to us? It knocks us down, drags us around, and leaves us stronger in the end. The funny thing about it is that Marjane is so lucky, if having a cheating boyfriend is the worst thing that happens to her.

After the failed romance, Marjane returns to her parents in Iran. But that world has become intolerable. Artists’ models must wear burkas, men are arrested for dressing in the wrong clothes or for looking at a woman. The country has been bombed into a wasteland. It is all too much to bear for Marjane. She takes some solace in being with her family, especially her foul-mouthed grandma, and her mother too.

Marjane has grown so much in the short amount of time we spend with her as she gets older and wiser, as she discovers the woman she has become. The film is filled with endless dips down the rabbit hole – dazzling, complicated, rich imagery, and storytelling that is like no other film this year, maybe any year. Take note, it is not a movie for small children.

Persepolis is a rarity, not necessarily because it follows the adventures of a plucky young girl on the road to discovery – we’ve seen this specifically in Miyazaki’s films – but because it dares to tell the story of how women’s spirits were crushed in those 20 crucial years, and just what kind of vibrancy they were crushing.

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