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Babies, I don’t know if I’ve ever said, but your ever-luvin’ Elephant-Head has another vice besides an inordinate predilection for shelled legumes, and that would be for one special midwinter evening when all the stars come out and so does my ballot for the Temple Oscar Pool. Yes, sweetlings, every year your precious pachyderm throws down a entire fin to take part in some hardcore gambling! There is nothing that can keep me from betting on my choices for everything from Best Picture to Best Performance by a Hamster (- I heard that was a new category this year), and I thank my cousins, the Oscar Gods, who have done me no favours in previous decades, for presenting so many clear nominations this year. This time I have finally spotted a sure winner and I’m thrilled that I will have at least one right vote on my ballot. 

I’m playing Persepolis for the win for Best Animated Feature. The motion picture adaptation of Marjane Satrapi’s award-winning graphic novel of her life as a young girl growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution is a masterpiece on every level. It’s a wonderful, incredibly moving story; the animation, all in black and white is at once seemingly simple while being technically adroit and setting new styles in the field. The voice acting is some of the finest I’ve heard with a cast featuring French cinema legends Catherine Deneuve and Danielle Darrieux placing an indelible mark on a story you will be hard placed to forget.  

Persepolis (- which is the name of Iran’s ancient capital) begins in Tehran of the 1970’s, a world unrecognisable from that which exists today. We meet little Marji’s, urbane, sophisticated parents throwing a party for their equally genteel friends. Much conversation abounds about fashion and culture from overseas during the gathering, as cosmopolitan as one might find in any other major European city. In the midst of this posh affair tears the little girl with a serious jones for Bruce Lee, complete with flying kicks and karate chops at unsuspecting partygoers. Marji is precocious and quick-witted with a lively imagination; a child very much loved by her parents and her outspoken, wise grandmother. Slowly, reports of the country’s unrest flit around young Marjane with news of arrests and riots against the corrupt regime of the Shah. Our little heroine, far too young to understand, marches around her house shouting support for the rebels while dreaming of God and a very similar looking Karl Marx. Eventually, the populace backs the Islamic government in the hopes of a return to democracy and fair process. No one can foresee the 180 degree changes life under strict Islamic rule will bring. Marji watches as there are no more parties or talks about French fashion, the young music lover can no longer rock out to Western songs, the alcohol her parents kept in their flat now comes with a prison sentence, and the entire female population now must wear headscarves when outside or in the presence of any men and wear them low enough on their foreheads to satisfy the mullahs on every corner. The worst loss for Marjane is the uncle she only recently met after his release from the Shah’s jail. A brilliant, educated man, well-versed in socialism and politics, Anouche was imprisoned for his activism against the previous regime. Despite his solid assertion that things in the country will get better under the new regime, he is only around long enough to Marjane to idolise before he is once again imprisoned, this time by the Islamic government and never seen again. Anouche’s story is told in a magnificent flashback sequence that gives us Marjane’s childlike view of her uncle’s story. Uncle and niece are kindred spirits and her final visit with him is devastating.  

Marji careens into teenagerdom full of the stroppy insolence of any kid on the edge of puberty. In her attempt at rebellion, she purchases black market Iron Maiden cassettes and emblazons her jacket with her maxim, “Punk Is Not Ded”, before being accosted by two black-clad morals watchdogs that swoop down on her like a pair of nightmarish crows. While Marjane pleads and cries her way out of that scrape, her strong will gets her in trouble at her ultra-strict religious school and her parents decide to continue her education at a French school in Vienna, not only to keep Marjane safe, but to give her a chance at happiness. Her goodbye to her adoring grandmother is touching as the older woman bestows her sage advice to the young girl heading out into the world alone. Persepolis draws its strength from its wonderfully written characters; Marjane’s devoted and delightfully un-dysfunctional family is the emotional core of the film and what elevates Persepolis beyond being simply a clever adaptation of a topical comic book and keeps the audience truly involved.  

Marjane arrives at the school which is run by a set of disparaging nuns and she finds herself an outsider from the inside; no one knows about the life she’s escaped or understands that not every Iranian is a terrorist, and she goes so far as to hide her nationality altogether. Marjane’s physical metamorphosis into young adulthood is captured in a hilarious highlight. Soon enough Marjane gets her butterfly wings and finds a group which whom she can socialise, listen to punk and do all the things forbidden to her in Tehran. Marjane eventually finds her way through first romances; one of them leaves her so bereft that returning to Iran is preferable to remaining in Vienna. Back she goes to Iran, as a bigger fish in the same stiflingly small bowl. Marji’s readjustment to life in Tehran is only made harder by the destruction around her caused by the country’s war with Iraq, her own burgeoning depression over her failed experience in Austria, and once again finding no one who understands what she’s been through. After bringing herself back from the depths in an excellent makeover montage played to a rousing version of “Eye of the Tiger”, Marjane returns to her schooling and true to her strong will, forms a clique of progressive free thinkers who become her social circle. Marjane marries a nice young man with whom she finds she has very little in common and divorces him. Feeling boxed in by her limited opportunities and the weight of the restrictive Fundamentalist government around her neck, Marjane leaves Iran once more to restart her life in Europe. 

From an animation and artistic standpoint, Persepolis is deceptively low-tech. The cels are predominantly white drawings over black matte, which adds a whole dimension of depth, atmosphere and wonderful halftones that wouldn’t have existed if drawn in the traditional black on white. It sets a mood from the outset (- Batman the Animated Series, one of the greatest TV shows ever, used the same technique to capture its moody brilliance). In my conversation with Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, who co-wrote and directed the film, I asked if they had used any CGI in the production of Persepolis and surprisingly the answer was no. They said that they didn’t know anything about CGI and didn’t use it for this film, which is a marvel considering how smoothly movements and scenes run together, even when incorporating a different style such as the shadow-puppet animation which highlights young Marji’s education about history of the Shah and his corruption. As I mentioned, the voice cast is superb, featuring Chiara Mastroianni (-daughter of Marcello & Madame Deneuve) who is excellent as the teen and adult Marjane. There is none of the awful affection that Westerners sometimes have when doing voice over work; a tendency to overcompensate because we can’t see you. The trouble is we can see you through the character you are providing a voice to. In Persepolis, each actor embodies their animated counterpart so well I forgot that France’s Marianne, Catherine Deneuve, was the voice behind Marjane’s mother. While all the actors are wonderful, I have to make special note of Danielle Darrieux as Marjane’s grandmother and Francois Jerosme as Uncle Anouche, both of their warm vibrant voices still ring in my head many days after having viewed the film. Even though I can’t speak a lick of French, I felt every emotion in every word spoken by this amazing group. Much praise in that part to first-time directors Satrapi and Paronnaud for achieving these heartfelt performances and assembling a sterling cast. 

In Persepolis, I can’t imagine that Marjane Satrapi, along with Vincent Paronnaud, could’ve written a better script, assembled a better cast or directed a better film with which to tell her amazing journey. Persepolis is a wonder. I adored it. 

Extremely well done. 

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

December 20th, 2007

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of  Sony Pictures Classics)