Set at the end of the twentieth century, Persepolis is an autobiographical piece by Marjane Satrapi set in Iran. Drawing out the tapestry of her life and based on the graphic novel of the same name Satrapi adapted her work alongside Vincent Paronnaud as an animated feature. The duality of direction allows the animation to enhance the source material into a fully realised world that remains faithful to its stylistic origins.
Marjane (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni) is the kind of character that is an instantly recognisable coming-of-age character. Ballsy, frightened, adventurous and unsure, she is a complete amalgamation. Indeed, this is what defines her characterisation. Whilst religion is an aspect of her childhood, she also benefited from the more liberal leaning of her family. She straddles this dual existence until the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Fundamentalism dictates her everyday life as she struggles to assimilate into a culture she is supposedly a part of. This inner conflict comes to define Marjane as everyone else also designates her as a either a part of this fundamentalism or shame upon it.
Marjane joins a list of accomplished, precocious young women characters in the vein of Lisa Simpson, Matilda and perhaps even Hermione Granger. In cinema we have few examples of these capable young women and it is even more important that a woman of colour is equal to these cultural icons.
An important relationship is the one between Marjane and her grandmother. They exist together in an environment that should put them at odds. Marjane’s grandmother (voice by Gene Rowlands) does not act as a voice of conservatism, she demonstrates the continuum that women have, do and will exist on. She expands our understanding of what it means to be a woman in Iran. A memory that sticks with Marjane throughout her life is something far more simple and intimate, her grandmother putting jasmine on herself every day so she would always smell nice. These are the kind of lingering thoughts that we keep throughout life.
However it’s the potentialities that are so distressing to watch. The character Marjane is on the periphery of many possible futures enhanced and inspired by the antiauthoritarian adventures of her Uncle Anoush. This feels unfairly cut short. Even when she leaves Iran for the supposed safety and freedom of Europe when she goes to school in Vienna. Marjane is rejected by the Nuns she lives with, the teachers in her school and eventually she rejects the frivolity of the freedoms that are taken for granted every day.
Marjane is created and understands herself as a part of her culture rather than definition by opposition. Her travels in Europe are characterised by depression, loneliness and … growth. In inhabiting a world that was so starkly different from the one she grew up in and the one it became, Marjane has to create a new identity, a third way to understand herself.
This conflict of identity is a universal story. Through the monochrome style of the animation, any viewer can insert themselves into Marjane’s narrative as she (and they) develop from who they feel they are supposed to be, who they want to be and who they are. It’s simplistic, the only colour seen as modern day Marjane reflects on her life whilst waiting for a flight, but effective.
Persepolis is rare find in film making: a graphic novel adaptation, helmed by a woman that achieved critical acclaim. Directed, written and about an Iranian woman, Persepolis demonstrates the breadth of stories that can and need to be told in cinema. Existing in a world so fractured and contradictory, the real struggle is to maintain your sense of self against a multitude of identities designated on you no matter how much you embrace or reject them.
I hope in writing this I’m not co-opting a narrative that isn’t mine but it’s important to use my platform to draw attention not only to women directors but non-western narratives. Now, go watch and be captured by an artistic and emotionally fulfilling piece of cinema.
by Catherine McNaughton
Catherine McNaughton is currently studying at the University of Manchester. Inspired by feminism and Debbie Harry. Her favourite films include Amelie, Before Sunset and Moonlight. You can find her on twitter: @__CatherineMac