Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Women's Stormy Coming of Age Tale

Growing up with a grandmother who lets you in on her female anatomy maintenance secrets, at most is eyebrow raising material. Add to that a home in an exclusive suburb with a view of year-round snow capped mountains, in a country that is probably the worlds largest producer of caviar, saffron, pistachios and almonds. Throw in a possible fact, the world's earliest wine was discovered here; and Readers would be justified in asking "What is so Stormy about growing up here ?". Reasonable geography experts would have guessed by now, the country in question is Iran (Persepolis is an ancient Iranian city). And when the years are mid 1970's to the early 1990's, "stormy" should almost be self-explanatory.

Nominated for the 2007 Best Animated Film Oscar, Persepolis is based on an Iranian women's autobiographical book by the same name. The film is a stirring account of Marjane Satrapi's experiences from childhood to adulthood; spanning the Shah era, the Islamic revolution, the war with Iraq, and living in an Islamic Iran. Since Marjane eventually emigrated to and settled in France, the film is originally shot in French. Eminent performers lent their voice to the original; Chiara Mastroianni as Marjane, Catherine Deneuve as her mother, Danielle Darrieux as her Grandmother, and Simon Akbarian as her father. Filmed primarily as a flashback in black & white, while color is used to signify the present.

The 9 old Marjane leads a typical child's carefree life, worships Bruce Lee and considers herself a prophet. She likes and supports the Shah; but soon realizes that a revolution against him is in progress. Some history lessons from her father awaken her to the reality of the Shah's repressive and unjust rule, and she soon joins the opposition. She is exposed to unsettling episodes such as a shooting death of a young anti-Shah demonstrating neighbor. Political prisoners also enter her realization; a friend's father is released from jail, and she also hears about her jailed communist uncle Anoosh.

A year later the Shah abdicates his throne and leaves Iran, signaling victory for the revolutionaries. Her uncle Anoosh is released from prison, and times seem to be improving. Hopes of democracy and freedom abound, and young Marji spends a lot of time getting close to and learning a lot from uncle Anoosh. However, the first dark clouds arise on the horizon; in the form of election victors --- Islamic fundamentalists. They soon begin chipping away at the new found freedoms, such as introducing compulsory hijab for women; and re-arresting and executing uncle Anoosh for his communist beliefs.

War with Iraq exposes the young girl Marji to its horrors, and also brings more hardships and more intolerant measures from the ruling Islamists. Young Marji having learnt about resisting repression from her uncle Anoosh, now starts exhibiting a more non-conformist personality. She indulges in now banned black-market western music and clothes, and also speaks out vehemently against the pro-Islamic rule hypocrisies and outright lies being taught by her teachers. This naturally gets her into trouble; and fearing for her safety, her parents decide to send her to a boarding school in Vienna.

At the tender age of 14, a lonely teenager Marjane begins experiencing life in a foreign land. She is comforted by the freedoms and the large amounts of material goods available in the West. Her rebellious nature leads to clashes with the nuns in the convent residence, but that is simply resolved by moving to another paying guest accommodation. Several student friends enter her life, and over time she experiences puberty, male homosexuality, boyfriends, sexual initiation and heartbreaks. A defining moment is her realization of pride and love for home country, and she vigorously defends Iran to a bunch of dismissive Western students. This love for country soon makes her homesick and depressed, and one day she decides to return to Iran.

I have intentionally disclosed a little more of the plot than normal, but there is still more left about her struggle after returning to Iran. Intentionally, since the story in its most basic terms is probably the best presentation of Marjane's coming of age experiences. Making this as an animated movie enhances its impact, the viewer is always drawn to the innovative presentation. Animated movies have a reputation of being crafted for children, but this one will convince the viewer of their suitability for more adult-oriented themes. The directors (Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud) have effectively used animation as a means of presenting such a complex tale, and are helped by the fact that the book itself was in a graphical illustrated format.

Although the movie contains several dark moments, it is sprinkled with humor which elevates it into the near perfect and great category. You cannot but admire and laugh with Marjane when she confronts some of the neanderthal Islamic revolutionaries. She keeps this spunk even when dealing with Catholic nuns in a Western convent, and also with flippant Western students. Just to be impartial I believe she would have dealt with almost any fundamentalist in the same manner, and yes that implies Hindu chauvinists as well (Unsheathe those NU's).

A standout in the movie is the Grandmother, yes the aforementioned female anatomy secrets dispenser. Another strong outspoken character, she advises Marjane to get a divorce rather than endure a failed relationship. Her flashes of humor keep us entertained throughout the movie.

How to vigorously protest against repression and religious excess, and yet express love for and pride in ones country; is the enduring lesson of this movie. Marjane Satrapi upon winning a prize for this movie in Cannes reportedly said "Although this film is universal, I wish to dedicate the prize to all Iranians.". Iranians did not deserve the megalomaniac Shah, and do not deserve the current crop of Islamic Fundamentalists; here is hoping that someone like Marjane Satrapi is in their future.

1) Wikipedia

1) The Books Persepolis I & II by Marjane Satrapi, also in illustrated graphic format.


avdi said...

Oh Samir, Whatta comeback.

I saw this movie a while ago. It was playing in a multiplex in Chandigarh and barely managed to complete a few days. On a Sunday, there were a sum total of 3 people in the theatre. I was afraid they would cancel the show. Luckily for me (and the other two souls) they didnt.

I just adored it.

I had actually forgotten that The Shah used to rule Iran once. Too bad it was all 'frying pan into the fire' for the Iranians. Poor Anoosh and his bread swans.

I fell totally in love with the grandmother and her jasmine flowers. I bet they are better than deos any day.

I thought the movie was PERFECT.

samir said...

Ava :))
This movie is special, glad you managed to see and like it.
And Iran does lurch from the frying pan into the fire.
The characters of Anoosh & the Grandmother were very nicely etched, were'nt they ?
Thanks for a wonderful response

samir said...
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couchpapaya said...

samir, that was a fabulous review. and what a perfect time politically to review it too! i (of course) had heard of and been very interested in the book and had no idea that a movie existed. how long is the movie? i'm pretty sure i'll get the books first but ur absolutely wonderfully detailed review has made me curious.

samir said...

The movie is an hour & 35 min long. If you subscribe to Netflix, this movie is one of those you can watch online.
I got lucky re: the timing, hopefully the Iranians get more lucky.
Thanks for a wonderful response.

avdi said...

CP I saw this movie on the big screen. And was captivated.

avdi said...
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BK Chowla said...

I have not seen the movie and hence can not comment.But I did visit Tehran during the time Shah ruled.It was a different world.

samir said...

BK Chowla :
Nice to know you visited Tehran during the Shah's rule, I did as well.
As you say it was a different world, although probably not a better one.
Thanks for the response.

dustedoff said...

That's a very interesting review of what seems to be an unusual movie - I mean, such a tumultous coming of age is hardly the thing (as you mention, too) to be dealt with in an animated format. I'll certainly look out for it! Thanks for pointing me to this, Samir.

samir said...

@Dustedoff :
I am glad you like the review, thanks, and the book is interesting as well.