Tuesday, 5 February 2008

PERSEPOLIS (Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, 2007)

I actually caught up with this film on DVD, which are cheaply available in bootleg copies here. As a result, I'm planning on catching up with the more critically acclaimed films of the past year in the next little while. Thus far I have seen MICHAEL CLAYTON, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, EASTERN PROMISES, DEATH PROOF, NO END IN SIGHT, and THE KING OF KONG. I still have to watch I'M NOT THERE; 4 MONTHS, 3 WEEKS AND 2 DAYS; ATONEMENT; JUNO; and GONE BABY GONE. I may write an entry about all of these films once I'm through.

PERSEPOLIS is an animated adaptation of a comic book by co-director Marjane Satrapi about her experiences growing up during the Iranian revolution and its aftermath. This is quickly becoming a sub-genre in its own right. There have been a number of comics adaptation of late that aim at the art cinema crowd rather than the blockbuster market, so much so that even the new BATMAN series is trying to remold its image in this mold, with the infusion of indie director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale. Some of these have been live action films (GHOST WORLD, A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) or a mixture of animation and live action (AMERICAN SPLENDOR). Satrapi and Paronnaud adopt a very abstract look to emphasize the impressionistic memories of a child, and this look also allows a greater distance from the events because of its formalism.

Not being familiar with the comics, or with comics and comic scholarship in general (other than from what I've picked up from comic scholar friends), I can only comment on the film. Its interest for me was the relation it had to the films of the Iranian New Wave, especially the work of Jafar Panahi. During one sequence in PERSEPOLIS, there is a description of the dangers of attending parties under the Islamic theocracy in which alcohol is banned. This event is dramatized through the characters of Marjane and her liberal intellectual parents. In Panahi's CRIMSON GOLD, the same event is handled very differently, completing from the outside, without any knowledge of the characters involved. By comparison, PERSEPOLIS, as is often the case in the film, comes off as rather conventional in its approach to the material. In fact, PERSEPOLIS seems very much pitched to a audience of outsiders from a liberal humanist perspective. There is nothing difficult about the film and its style, and could easily gain a wide audience with the right marketing campaign.

However, I felt that the film trades off complexity for accessibility. Part of this is class based, since we are being given the perspective of a middle class family and its values and attitudes, which are very familiar to those in the West (hence the film's "universality", a term that always makes me suspicious). Marjane's parents, grandmother and martyred uncle are held up as clear and rather unambiguous moral exemplars. And while it was refreshing to see the Communist uncle held up as a heroic figure, he is seen as being misguided in his belief in any fundamental change, and the film furthermore argues that fundamental(ist) change is inherently dangerous. Better to believe, like the parents, in vague concepts like freedom, or in the wise homilies of her grandmother. If you compare Marjane's family to the complex "heroes" of the Iranian New Wave, the simplicity of PERSEPOLIS comes into clearer focus.

Nevertheless, the film is certainly worth seeing. It just seems rather depressing that we need the story of Iran told this way, and that merely stating that Iran have middle class people just like us would be seen by so many as a politically relevant act.

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