A lot of films can break your heart–a precious few can enlarge and renovate it.
Vincent Paronnaud’s and Marjane Satrapi’s animated film of the latter’s graphic novel is one of those precious few. It invites comparison to great, iconic works of art—The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Maus were all associations I made during the screening–but in the end, Persepolis retains a distinctive voice that allows it to take its place amidst those masterpieces rather than simply reference them as part of its thematic genealogy.
Animated in a simple yet rich style that adds sound and movement to the artwork of the graphic novel while retaining its flavor, Persopolistells the story of twenty plus years in the country of Iran (and some of the history that informs it) as mediated through the personal experiences and witness of the eponymous child, Marjane. The film opens on the eve of the Islamic revolution of that country and ends with the adult Marjane leaving her homeland for the second time. In between we see the history of a culture, but we see it not just as events that surround the protagonist or provide a backdrop for her story. The personal narrative and the cultural narrative are so deeply entwined as to be inextricable, and it is through their union rather than through either strand that we best see the horrible costs of war, violence, and oppression on a personal as well as political scale.
If all this makes the film sound preachy or forced, it’s not. Marjane is no Victory Henry (from The Winds of War) or Forrest Gump; she is not merely a device that the story uses to let the viewer witness the spectacles that make up world history. The film, first and foremost, cares deeply about Marjane as a person, and, thus, so do we. It does not, however, idealize or idolize her. Satrapi is capable of conveying the innocence of childhood not only through its losses but also through its confusion. One of the best, most honest moments is when one child envies another whose family member was imprisoned longer because that will lead to more prestige and attention for her. We see how easily children can adopt rhetoric they don’t understand but which they quickly learn how to exploit.
In another great scene, Marjane boasts to her indignant grandmother that she has falsely accused a man of making inappropriate remarks to her because she knew she could manipulate the prejudices of the police who might otherwise arrest her for her dress or makeup. When her grandmother explodes in anger at Marjane for adding to the sufferings of an innocent bystander, her rebuke stings more than a hundred insults offered by countless nameless men because Marjane knows this time the horrific name she is called is deserved. Ironically, though, the sum effect of this scene is to make us like Marjane the better because she can still learn and still feel shame. The anger and fear that led to her error are real, but unlike some she will not use them to blind or numb her conscience to her own responsibility to her neighbors.
Perhaps one reason why these last two examples resonated with me so deeply is because they illustrated practices that I’ve witnessed in repressive and unhealthy fundamentalist Christian environments. Although I’m not claiming the consequences are parallel, I have, for example, seen Christian students use professed scandal or offense at some work of art to try to escape or deflect unpleasant situations of their own not because they were genuinely offended but because they found it expedient to use an argument they knew the sources of power to which they were appealing would be sympathetic towards. If Persepolis has a moral ideology, it is that of personal integrity; the message is less about the abstract embrace or disavowal of a particular ideology so much it is a call for authenticity in human relationships, and this is an ideology that Christians can learn from every bit as much as non-Christians.
In that sense, like The War Within, I found Persepolisto be a very ecumenical film in its vision of humanity if not its theology. The adolescent Marjane has a hero in Bruce Lee and wants to be a great prophet. These childhood dreams inspire her actions and shape her questions. Like Lee, she becomes a fighter of great courage, elegance, and skill (though her fights are more spiritual than physical). Like other prophets, she becomes a questioner and seeker, often experiencing the deep loneliness and alienation, even from God (or at least the God of her limited conception) that is seen in the histories of figures such as Elijah or Jonah.
I remember reading once that trauma or some forms of addiction can arrest emotional development. If so, it is interesting to contemplate the fact that such a large percentage of the current population of Iran is under thirty and has grown up in a crucible of suffering, oppression, and fear. The God of Marjane’s dreams is a benign one who allows her to approach Him with her dreams and questions and, above all, her doubts. In one of her imaginative trips to clouds to see Him, Marjane also witnesses Karl Marx, who pops up on another cloud to urge her to “keep up the fight.” “Yes,” God echoes, somewhat wearily as Marjane takes leave, “keep up the fight.”
Of course, I like to think “the fight” means different things in both these speeches. From the former it perhaps connoted the political fight to adopt and implement the right ideology to rule men’s lives. For the later, I fancy it meant (especially, coming as it did in the midst of the character’s clinical depression and emotional alienation) the fight to have our own lives, to get up each morning, to face a threatening and soul-crushing world, to stare down despair, to live. I like that the God of Marjane’s dreams did not reject Marx’s rhetorical call for political action or social justice as inherently bad. He merely sounded weary of those who cared only for the masses and never for the individual. If He was on anyone’s side, He was on the side of the hurting, and there is something comforting in the contemplation of the fact that the prayers and hopes of those who live in worlds so very different from me may be the same as my own.
Persepolis is a film so rich, I have not even discussed how it conveys with poignancy the immigrant experience (V.S. Naipul’s “One of Many” was another work I was reminded of while screening the film), its observations about the soul’s thirst for art that will not be denied, or its deep, complex musings about family and marriage. It was encouraging to see at The Toronto International Film Festival that it was being distributed by Sony Pictures Classic. I can only hope that having a major studio behind the film will help it get the promotion as well as the distribution it so richly deserves.