Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis graphic novels have attracted something of a cult following, so this adaptation is guaranteed a ready-made audience. Dealing with the author’s childhood and adolescence in Iran following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Persepolis raises issues that are obviously relevant in today’s political climate.
But despite its stretches of clunky politicised dialogue, during which some characters speak exclusively in slogans and soundbites, the film does not have much to say about broad political questions. It spends more time describing the mundane but nonetheless shocking indignities of living under an oppressive fundamentalist regime. Initially comic scenes about organising illegal parties and brewing illicit alcohol become more serious as they highlight the ever-present threat of government surveillance and arbitrary arrest.
However, the film’s main focus is on the character of Marjane herself. She is an appealing protagonist: clever, funny, opinionated and self-aware. There are lots of other characters in Persepolis, but they are pushed into the background as Marjane’s growing pains (hitting puberty, falling in love, struggling with depression) take centre stage.
This emphasis on the personal over the political means that Persepolis sometimes feels like any other coming-of-age film, especially since serious issues such as rape and suicide are too often lumped together with trite messages about being true to yourself and doing the right thing.
This is a shame, because all this is presented using striking animation that closely mimics the stark black-and-white drawings of the original books. At times the film’s style drifts dangerously close to cliché, such as the sequences that employ the lowering silhouettes of tanks and artillery to suggest the horrors of the Iran-Iraq war. Yet Satrapi and her co-director Vincent Paronnaud also use this style to create some arresting and memorable images; the political demonstrations that open the film, for example, fill the screen with a vast monochrome sea of human figures.
On a more intimate and personal level, a scene which depicts the sinuous, predatory forms of two chador-clad ‘social guardians’ looming over the young Marjane (who is clutching a bootleg Iron Maiden cassette and wearing a jacket with ‘punk is not ded’ emblazoned across it) manages to be both funny and disquieting at the same time. There are several other moments in the film that are equally impressive visually, and they are worth waiting for. These moments, and the enjoyment to be had from the central character, more than make up for an occasionally weak and unambitious script.