They say the best way to know any culture is through its art. It's also possible to gain a similar perspective via its artists. Born before the revolution in Iran unseated the reigning Shah, Marjane Satrapi saw her parents idealism embraced, and then eradicated, by a movement meant to free the nation's tyrannized people. The resulting Islamic fundamentalism, with its deference to Muslim law and chauvinistic ritual, drove Satrapi from her home. Years later, she would reflect on these massive cultural and personal changes in a series of graphic novels. Named Persepolis after the ancient capital of the Persian empire, the brave, original books have now been turned into an equally inventive film. Via stark, stylized animation, and a vignette oriented approach to narrative, we learn the shocking truth that not all rebellion serves the needs of the people. Sometimes, it's merely change for the sake of same.
As a young girl, Marjane enjoys the intellectual freedom and liberal beliefs of her parents. When threats against the Shah's power take hold, her entire family falls along the philosophical front lines. They are careful in their convictions - grandfather was jailed and killed by the ruling government, and one uncle's radical views have consistently kept him imprisoned. With the despot's eventual fall and the beginning of the revolt, Marjane senses real change in the wind. Sadly, the theocracy which takes over turns the country into a dark, dour wasteland. Desperate to save their child, Marjane is sent to Europe. There, she learns that attitudes toward her people and her homeland are just as destructive as the death squads and Islamic militants manning the streets of Tehran. And things get even worse when she returns.
Persepolis is astonishing, a revelation realized in masterful monochrome strokes. Written and directed by Satrapi in collaboration with fellow French comic artist Vincent Paronnaud the simplistic approach to the visuals, in combination with the intense complexity of the story, turns history into a horror film, a bleak and undeniably dark look at life inside a post-revolutionary Iran. It's a film of contrasts - adult situations filtered through the eyes of impressionable children, gorgeous imagery suggesting unspeakable evils. The juxtaposition of Satrapi's straightforward observations illustrated in a style reminiscent of Peanuts and other 2D dreamscapes turn said insights razor sharp. By the end, we are sad for both a nation, and the people who tested the limits of their rights…and discovered the painful, punishable truth.
This is clearly a condemnation of Islamic rule gone wrong, the usurping of personal goals in favor of a more one sided struggle. The Shah is definitely demonized, and rightfully so. Persepolis makes a point of explaining the internal issues that brought Iran to the brink. Once we get beyond the Ayatollahs and the Mullahs, the roving gangs of ex-army adolescents suppressing the citizenry because someone said they can, we recognize the almost even-handed tone. Certainly, there are sentiments that we in the West just can't support - even as a literal Hell, the people of Iran are determined - and even die - to continue living in their country. Yet Persepolis explains away such sticking points with a clear focus on characters and their concerns.
Aside from Marjane, the most memorable individual we meet is her Grandmother, voiced by Danielle Darrieux. The comforting coo of reason in a realm devoid of rationality, she's the source of our heroine's chutzpah, as well as her greatest cause for concern. Marjane is not an easy person to figure out. When she gets to Europe, she pines for the Middle East. Once back in her home, the fanaticism she finds has her longing for her days on the Continent. It's this inconsistency of terms and intentions that can make Persepolis disquieting and uneasy. But with the wisdom and guidance of Grandma, plus the striking manner in which she's described, we easily maneuver around the rough edges.
The stunning optical beauty helps as well. Using references to Eastern art, as well as a few slightly surrealistic steps, Satrapi and Paronnaud give this film a wholly original feel. We catch glimpses of other cultural signposts (heavy metal, the cinema) but for the most part, the duo dissects the art of telling a story into its most nascent precepts. There are definite beats here, like the guitar lines in Marjane's favorite punk rock song and the directing duo make sure to add emphasis to sequences where such punch is important. Yet there is a lyricism here as well, a sense of seeing the real world through the skewed perspective of a particular - and passionate - viewpoint. It makes the black and white look that much more thematically important.
Of course, all of this is only as engaging as the information proffered, and Persepolis provides a wealth of international insight. The daily life inside a post-revolutionary Iran is reminiscent of the late '80s news reports from Moscow where journalists would gape at empty store shelves and housewives battling over stale bread. The goon squads come across as leopard like predators with their ability to be everywhere at once, using force and faith as their main weapons of control, a less than veiled threat. There are off the cuff comments (a woman complains about a window washer turned hospital administrator) and progressive illustrations (note how the lessons change in school) of the way in which radicalism reverses the cause it supposedly supports.
And this is the key point of Persepolis. We are supposed to see the Shah as the lesser of several unavoidable evils, and the fight to remove him from power a pure fool's paradise. While not quite a pristine example of the old adage regarding knowing now what you knew then, fear can undermine even the most well meaning motives. Through the childlike medium of cartoons, and the very adult world of politics, Persepolis weaves a spell that's impossible to avoid. Like an anime built out of anarchy or a kid vid corrupted by poisoned policies, it's a movie that does what these kind of efforts do best - inform as they enrage and engage. It's a work that stands as one of this - or any - year's best.