Whatever you think about Iran today, its history over the last thirty years has been tragic. The war with Iraq killed a generation of young men, the internal repression of the Shah and the following Islamic republic was brutal and especially horrible to women. Iran is one of the oldest countries in the world- the title of this film, Persepolis, draws on memories of the capital of the Achaemenid dynasty which reigned in the Middle East over two and a half thousand years ago. Running through this film is a sense of the antiquity and majesty of Iranian culture- it should be no surprise that some of the greatest directors and greatest novelists of the twentieth century are Iranian despite the depradations of history upon the country. That history is what shapes the film Persepolis- it is about two stories- the story of Iran from the late seventies until the early nineties and the story of a young girl coming from the age of five to her early twenties. The artistic acheivement of Persepolis is the blending of these two stories and the reflection it encourages amongst us upon the ways that we deal with the vicissitudes of historical fortune.
From the first moment of the film to the last, we are confronted with a subjective viewing of objective reality. The leading character Marjane, her family and her friends come from reformist circles in Iran. Her uncle was a communist, imprisoned by the Shah and then imprisoned again by the new revolutionaries and executed by Khomeini. Her father and mother show tendencies towards liberalism of an undefined type: her mother has aspirations that Marjane should become an independent liberated woman- educated and cultivated- an equal to any man and a superior by virtue of her intelligence and charm to many. But all around them of course is the world of the Islamic revolution which swept aside the Shah in 1979 and rules in Iran to this day. This captures an interesting and important sociological split within Iran- between the middle class in Tehran who back the reformers and the religious groups who back the fundamentalists. There is a faint whiff of this when at one point one of the Satrapi's neighbours has to depend on her ex window cleaner who is now a director of the local hospital. Religious revolution in this case is also social revolution.
But more importantly than the description of the revolution and more interesting, is the description of how people coped with the revolution. Marjane coped in two ways- firstly by emigrating to Vienna when she was 14 and secondly on her return to Iran for her university years by covertly remaining liberal in an illiberal society. Her time in Vienna seems to have been unhappy, deprived of an identity in her adolescence she seems to have roamed through her time in Europe. There is a sense in which her time in Vienna tells us a lot about the way that people can cope with dislocation at various points in her life: Marjane simply was not ready for immigration. She survived but she was dislocated, felt she had to ignore or conceal her identity and was not able to be secure enough to integrate comfortably into someone else's culture. Without the sense that she was Iranian, she found it hard to ever feel comfortable around those who were European- her picture of her time in Austria is as an outsider, a laughing stock, someone who deserved pity because of her origins.
Coming back to Iran, we face the other side of the dilemma. Marjane has to conceal her liberal behaviour- the fact that she doesn't want to wear a tight veil, the fact that she is interested in dancing, alcohol and of course men. She takes on her religious teachers- telling them for instance that there is a contradiction between the way that they treat men and women. She is arrested by the religious police for holding hands with her boyfriend in public. The illiberal state essentially forces her hand, turning a temporary relationship based on physical and instant attraction into a marriage because of its repressive targetting of human affection. The Iranian state forces her into a divorce. In a sense the picture of the Iranian regulation we get is most succinctly expressed, when some religious guards pursue some of Marjane's friends from a party and because of their pursuit one of the friends slips and falls to his death as he escapes across a roof. Of course though Marjane copes- and the key is that she does cope, she ultimately finds a kind of security in the affection of those that she knows and loves and also in a reinforced sense of self. She decides that she will survive and she takes on the contradictions between her private and public self. Eventually she makes the decision to go back into exile- but the exiled Marjane is an adult- able to cope with the dislocation of exile.
All of this is told through the medium of a cartoon. This works incredibly well- firstly because the drawings done by the real Marjane Satrapi- are impressive and interesting. But secondly because the dislocation of moving to a cartoon reinforces the dislocation of the surrealism of many of the pictures. We are shown Marjane's state of mind at various points, expressed graphically- say with her at various points talking to God. That would not work as well in a realistic film- but it works in cartoons, belief has already been suspended and we can accept that we are seeing a vision of reality rather than reality itself. The subjective nature of the film reinforces the fact that what we are interested in here is the movement of a character through the movement of a nation, it is something that cinema has not often done well- but here as in say Max Ophul's Letter from an Unknown Woman- we need to remember in order to understand the film that it is a subjective vision. Cartoons make that easier to appreciate- easier to appreciate the dual movement of the film.
In some ways this film is a fairly straightforward tale- the difficulty is in telling what is the straightforward tale- is it the growing girl's story or the Iranian revolution's. To be honest it is the intersection, the blending between them, which is the most interesting thing about this. The sense that preservation of self is the key to survival of historical tragedy has a certain truth to it: in Marjane's case it helped her survive and escape. Hopefully it will help many others round the world in similar situations.