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December 20, 2007

A Revolutionary Adaptation

The politics of bringing Persepolis from the page to the screen

Girl power: The Iranian Revolution dawns on young Marjane Satrapi in Persepolis (Photo: Sony Pictures Classics)

Unless you count the best-forgotten Sally Field vehicle Not Without My Daughter, cinema has been awaiting the first major depiction of the Iranian Revolution -- arguably, the single most important theocratic rise to power in recent history. Forget about reports on weapon stockpiling and anti-Semitism, though: The first recounting of the deposition of the Shah, the rise of fundamentalist Islamists to power in Iran and the fallout for the more reluctant parts of the population is a teen-angst diary in animated form.

Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi's entirely personal attack on the misogynist, reactionary, conservative regime of contemporary Iran -- adapted from her graphic novel memoir of life during and after the Revolution, at home and in exile -- has been cleaned up from its more scabrous literary origins. With grayscale filling out the formerly spare frames and a decrease in attacks on Israel, it's kitsch as counterpropaganda. If Satrapi chose animation at least in part to avoid the problems of translating a stylized visual look to live-action, it also seems like a deliberate rebuke to the Iranian cinema popularized in international art houses over the last 20 years -- slow, sedate, self-consciously magisterial and detached. In the films of Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi and other male auteurs, children make convenient stand-ins for allegorical points; the male experience is dominant by default. Regardless of whether or not the films are maliciously meant, there's a myopia of representation.

Enter Persepolis: animated, swiftly-paced and anything but detached. Instead of aligning herself with cinema, Satrapi's frame of reference allies itself with Iron Maiden. "Jikael Mackson" and other mispronounced staples of Western culture are recontextualized: What frantic liberals in America would refer to as examples of American cultural imperialism become valuable tools in fighting cultural fascism of a far more devastating kind. Better yet, instead of doing her film in Persian, Satrapi does it in French. Granted, Satrapi lives in Paris, got her financing from French sources and generally seems comfortable in the language. At key moments in the book and film, Satrapi is reduced to cursing in Persian lest any of the Europeans surrounding her can actually comprehend what she's saying: the rest of the time, she negotiates everything in French, regardless of whether her character is actually speaking Persian, German, or, you know, French. And it must have been a thrill to cast a sexual icon like Catherine Denueve to play the role of a matriarch repressed by the new regime. If they'd known they were messing with Belle de Jour, they might have been more careful.

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Western pop culture liberates Marjane on-screen, and she repays the favor by shaking her source text free of elements that might make it a difficult bet for crossover status. A constant fear in the book is that the Israeli army is about to attack; here, all traces of even the latent potential for being labeled anti-Semitic have been scrubbed out. (Anti-Zionism doesn't play here as well as in Europe.) Gone are Marjane's musings on how she's dying to lose her virginity already, or how she sold pot to the whole school; this Marjane is hormonal, selfish and petulant, sure, but not enough to freak any cultural conservatives out. Denying her original language, realistic representation or anything that could get her attacked for being as politically insensitive as the regime she attacks, Satrapi stages Persepolis as an innocuous provocation. Who wouldn't be on the side of an adorable little girl and her mother Deneuve?

Most of all, Satrapi strips her work of anything intellectually off-putting. Gone are the references and quotations from Lacan and Bakunin, not to mention the scrupulously detailed outlining of Marxist thought and agitation in late '70s/early '80s Iran. Instead, we get a monolithic, user-friendly portrait of how much it sucks to have missiles dropped on your neighbors' apartment complex. Satrapi's greatest change in adaptation is making her political portrait as simple as possible. The book's foreign sections remain pretty much intact; it's the Iranian bits -- i.e., the ones that make it a political film in the first place -- that have been flattened. Which suggests that Satrapi knows her Western audience all too well: They want to feel good for sympathizing with the plight of an Iranian, but what they really want to see is themselves.



Comments (1)


I saw Persepolis with my girlfriend at the Lincoln Center Film Festival closing.

Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud and others were there. We sat beneath them in the theatre and I have some fantastic pics of them..

The movie is fantastic, creative, funny and a must see!!


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