At a time when so many animated films use state-of-the-art 3D computer imaging technology to disguise the fact that they are in fact animated, Iranian-born artist and writer Marjane Satrapi's beautifully hand-drawn adaptation of her acclaimed series of autobiographical graphic novels is a welcome return to the original ideals of the art form. Named for the ancient capital of what was one called Persia, Satrapi's story is also a timely and deeply personal glimpse of life in Iran before, during and after the 1979 revolution that ended the reign of the Shah and ushered in a new era of rigorous Islamic fundamentalism.
While waiting for her flight to leave Paris for Tehran where she was born, a now-grown Marjane (voice of Chiara Matroianni) dons her hijab, lights a cigarette and remembers her youth in the city in which she was born. In 1975, young Marjane (Gabrielle Lopes) is a precocious, Bruce Lee-loving 9-year-old who felt certain she was nothing less than a prophet. Unlike her parents (Simon Abkarian, Catherine Deneuve) and beloved grandmother (Danielle Darrieux), who eagerly anticipate the Shah's impending overthrow, Marjane likes the current dictator, who she admires as a man close to God. She changes her mind when her father gives her a crash course in 20th-century Iranian history, and explains how Mohammad Reza Pahlavi is the latest in a string of increasingly oppressive dictators descended from Reza Khan, who overthrew the Qajar Empire in 1921. She also learns how her grandfather, a Qajar prince, was imprisoned by the Shah, as was her uncle, a torture victim who still languishes in prison. When the revolution (stunningly staged in stark silhouette) finally occurs, Marjane is ecstatic -- until she realizes the extent to which her life is about to change. When a restrictive Islamic government is voted into power by an overwhelming majority, a conservative backlash seizes the entire country. Her Marxist uncle Anoush (Francois Jerosme), who had recently returned to Iran after defecting the U.S.S.R., is arrested in a revolutionary purge, and Marjane is now required to keep her hair and forehead covered by a hijab. A year later, Iraq declares its devastating war on Iran. Bombs destroy the city, boys her own age are forced to become "martyrs" in the war effort and a now-teenage Marjane finds small ways of rebelling -- she buys Iron Maiden cassettes on the black music market and daringly writes "Punk Is Not Ded" on the back of her jacket. As the country teeters on the brink of collapse, Marjane's parents decide to send her away to school in Vienna, but this "liberation" from the totalitarianism at home only leaves Marjane alone and stranded abroad.
Satrapi wrote and directed the film with Vincent Paronnaud, the underground comic artist who publishes under the name "Winshluss," and together they manage to capture the distinctive style and tone of Satrapi's original texts. While covering thirty years of tumultuous history, the story flows smoothly from one phase of Marjane's life to another, and for a film so proudly two-dimensional and mostly monochromatic, there are moments of simple yet dazzling artistry. The French-language voice cast is first-rate, although the film will also be released in the U.S. in an English-language version featuring Sean Penn, Iggy Pop and Gena Rowlands in addition to Deneuve and Mastroianni. leave a comment --Ken Fox