I Second Anthony Lane on "Persepolis"

…in giving this film an overall not so fresh tomato. And I mean second literally — everyone is raving about this movie; Lane (my favorite of all art critics) is the only one who hasn’t. Of course I’ve been looking so forward to seeing it, and of course that’s never a good thing, with me at least. With the exception of Alvin Ailey, it seems that everything I’ve looked forward to lately I’ve ended up being disappointed with.

Anyway, this is a graphic film, in French with English subtitles, based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic memoirs about growing up in Iran during the country’s political turmoil of the 1970s: first the displacement of the Shah, followed by the violent revolutionary war, then the oppressive regime of Khomeni. At the movie’s start, the Shah is being overthrown and of course there are all kinds of imprisonments and murders. Marji’s father and uncle are supporters of the revolution and the movie begins with them telling her (and us) in detail about the politics of the period, and why the Shah is bad for the country. To me, this is not only confusing but becomes very boring very fast: I like my narratives to be character-driven; if I want to know about the politics of a time, I’ll consult a history book. Plus, Marji’s only about four years old when they’re feeding her these views, so how much can such a young child take in anyway? Just showing Marji’s family and friends being taken away and not heard from again from her child’s point of view makes enough of a statement. But, fortunately, we only get this for about the first twenty minutes; then we delve more into the characters.

I think my biggest problem was that I couldn’t fully connect to Marji. Having learned from her outspoken grandmother and mother to speak her mind, she challenges her teachers’ authority when they spout political propaganda in the classroom, then flouts police commands to wear her veil on the streets. Fearing for her safety, her parents send her off to a French school in Vienna. But several other people, including her grandfather who is severely in need of medical attention unavailable in Iran, have been denied passports, so I was curious at how quick and easy it was for her parents to obtain the necessary documents. That’s never explained.

It’s at her school in Vienna where she reaches puberty and begins her studies in earnest, discovering major philiosophers and knowledge she’s been denied in her home country, as well as lipstick, fashion and boys. She falls in with a group of young French intellectuals, which seems to suit her well, she has fun going to parties and meeting new people, and she gets her first boyfriend. But she has problems generally getting along with people. Though most of the students at her school come from international backgrounds, she feels out of place as an Iranian. And her aunt, to whose security her parents had entrusted her, promptly and inexplicably throws her out of her house and into a convent. Marji doesn’t get along with the nuns and their strict rules, so she runs away and becomes a border at the home of an older woman whom she fights with as well. Then, most astounding to me, after surviving the horrors of wartorn Iran, witnessing bombs destroy neighboring houses and their inhabitants, watching relatives be hauled off by the police, and hearing of their murders, she ends up having a breakdown over her boyfriend’s unfaithfulness. In a fit of anger, she leaves the house where she has been staying, begins living on the streets, catches bronchitis and nearly dies — supposedly over the boy. In the hospital, she calls her parents and asks to return.

She returns to Iran grown, the war now over but the oppressive regime firmly in place: the police are everywhere making arrests if women don’t wear veils in public, if they suspect people of going to or coming from a party where there’s been alcohol consumption, if someone is dressed in too Western a manner, etc. etc. Her family organizes a sweet extended family reunion for her, but, having come of age in the West, she now feels disconnected from everyone she knows. She begins seeing a shrink (how middle-class, how American?…) who pronounces her depressed and gives her meds that don’t work. Eventually, she is able to pull herself out of it and begin an Art degree, but after police arrest her and a new boyfriend for holding hands in a car, she decides, at 21, to marry the man and give up her education. And this is where I really felt like walking out of the theater. After surviving all that she has, she makes so many ridiculously stupid choices: nearly killing herself over a cheating boy, getting married and giving up her education because she can’t hold hands with a man in public?… I can’t even understand what she’s doing back in Iran in the first place and I want to scream at her to go back to Europe.

Anyway, eventually a resolution is reached and the ending hints that Marji has been able to find a kind of peace with herself. I’m definitely glad I saw the movie because it does give you a good sense of what it was like to live in Iran during the reign of Khomeni. But as an examination of displacement, exile and identity, I felt it was lacking, that it didn’t hold a candle to something like Andrei Makine’s brilliant “Dreams of My Russian Summers.” When when when are they going to make that into a movie?! (Actually, I have no idea how they’d make a film out of that book — it is so perfect as a novel; I just want everyone I know to be exposed to it, and unfortunately many more people see movies than read…)

But having said all of this, Persepolis has been nominated and received all kinds of awards, and everyone besides Lane is raving about it (and he wasn’t that harsh, for Lane anyway; only said it was “simple”), so I’d be interested to hear what others saw in it, if anyone did?


  1. I think the books will answer a lot of the questions you had about the film. I’ve read the second one, and am on my way to reading the first one. The books are very interesting and the drawings are nice, but I did have a little trouble deciding if I liked Marjane as a character. I do think a book and its adaptation should be able to stand alone though, and gathering from your review, it seems like in this case that’s not so. I still want to see the film though because being Muslim myself I like to see how Muslims are portrayed in film/TV.

  2. Thanks, Salmeen — yes, I should really read those books! And yes, you should definitely see the film. I’d be really interested to know what you think!

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