It saddens me in this era of Wikipedia, Google, and 24-hour news networks that it took an animated foreign film to paint a clear picture of Iran and its ideological turmoil. ‘Persepolis’ is the brain child of Iranian author, illustrator, and director Marjane Satrapi (who co-wrote and directed the film with Vincent Paronnaud), a French immigrant born and raised in Tehran in the ‘70s and ‘80s amidst Iran’s most recent social upheaval. Faithfully adapted from a pair of Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novels, this surreal French production examines Iran’s modern history, its oppressive regime, and the imprisoned hearts and minds of those trapped beneath its heavy boot.
Named for the ancient ceremonial capital of the Persian Empire, ‘Persepolis’ follows a young Marjane (Chiara Mastroianni) as she approaches adolescence during the Iranian Revolution. For anyone who doesn’t know, the Iranian Revolution was a late twentieth century insurrection in which Iran was hijacked by a fundamentalist regime controlled by the Ayatollahs. In just two short years, artists and activists were jailed, revolutionaries were executed en mass, and women were degraded and forced to wear head coverings in public. In the film, the situation becomes more dire for Marjane’s family with each passing day, and her mother (Catherine Deneuve) and father (Simon Abkarian in the original French version and Sean Penn in the English dub) struggle to successfully protect her from Iran’s zealots while maintaining their family’s beliefs and convictions.
Confused by the tyrannical demands of her government and the seeming cruelty of God, Marjane turns to her grandmother (Danielle Darrieux and Gena Rowlands) and uncle (Francois Jerosme and Iggy Pop) for advice. However, as the political situation becomes even more dangerous, Marjane’s parents send her to live and attend a French school in Vienna. Unsatisfied with the people she encounters there, she eventually moves on and befriends a group of apathetic amateur philosophers and pompous “revolutionaries” who introduce the teenage girl to an entirely different set of headaches and heartaches. Fighting to discover her place in the world, understand her role in Iran, and accept her heritage, Marjane desperately searches for happiness, love, and peace in a frightening, ever-changing world.
’Persepolis’ is quite frankly an innovative masterpiece that overcomes its humble visuals and captures the essence of Marjane’s inner turmoil and physical struggles. It also manages to encapsulate the conflicting attitudes and beliefs of an entire nation that suffers from an ongoing identity crisis. When asked why she chose to tell her story first in the graphic novel format and second in black and white 2D animation, Marjane has said that her simplistic drawings allow an audience to realize and identify the core fears and complex emotions she experienced throughout her young life. In that regard, ‘Persepolis’ is without equal. Gunmen loom through smoke in a dream that becomes all too real, the history of Iran is revealed using rolling landscapes and puppet-like figures, and God is a friendly, bearded man who has conversations with Marjane on a regular basis. Even more surreal are the fundamentalist women who slither around the young girl like hooded snakes, an ex-boyfriend shown from two different perspectives, a battle with puberty, and Marjane’s various encounters with love in France. These scenes bend reality and defy expectations, yet somehow effectively communicate every subtle layer and emotion Satrapi is trying to convey.
To that end, the story itself is full of intrigue, violence, and tense confrontations that imbue the film with a palpable sense of doom and dread. Marjane doesn’t just pull back the curtain on Iran’s oppressive and repressive fundamentalist regime, she tells a tender coming-of-age tale that doesn’t feel manipulative or embellished. Her dialogue is succinct and to-the-point, leaving little room for interpretation or debate. Some may worry that her perspective is biased by the horrors of her childhood, but she’s more critical of herself and her decisions than she is of the most treacherous villains in Iran. For all of her activist views and humanitarian pleas, Marjane never blames anyone but herself -- while she frequently points out the crimes of a government and the fear of an entire people, she’s more concerned with paying penance for the mistakes and misdeeds of her adolescence.
I suppose some people will find ‘Persepolis’ a tad uneven or bemoan its girl-power subtext, but I found it all quite refreshing and unique. Marjane’s film educates a foreign audience on the historical and political conflicts that birthed modern Iran, tells a bittersweet story of a young girl growing up in the shadow of a cruel regime, and somehow managed to make a spoiled, white American guy like me connect with a Iranian woman living in France. Not bad for a simplistic, black and white animated film.
2D animation? Simplistic black and white art? A minimalist use of color? ‘Persepolis’ isn’t exactly the sort of film one would expect to offer a compelling upgrade over its DVD counterpart. However, Sony has given the film an absolutely gorgeous 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that intensifies the imagery and reproduces Satrapi’s vision with painstaking faithfulness. The animation itself showcases sharp, clean lines, perfectly stark contrast, and incredibly inky black levels. The entire film plays just as it should: like a graphic novel whose characters are leaping off the page and onto the screen. More importantly, the occasional use of color is bold and stable, there is no crushing present in the darkest regions of the transfer, and detail is so impeccable that the various textures of the hand-drawn lines and painted background images are intact and clearly visible throughout the production.
Even so, the thing that seals the deal with this release is the striking clarity of the image. The transfer isn’t hindered by artifacting, source noise, or (to my surprise) banding of any sort. White spaces are clean, black expanses are unyielding, and there isn’t a hint of frame stutter or contrast wavering. Some people may complain that the film itself isn’t demo material, but I say bah. The Blu-ray edition of ‘Persepolis’ proves that high definition can even transform a simplistic, two-dimensional, animated film into a perfect work of art.
Wow… consider my expectations completely shattered with this release. ‘Persepolis’ not only features a stunning video transfer, it boasts a pair of impressive Dolby TrueHD 5.1 surround tracks that faithfully endow both the original French mix and new English dub with plenty of sonic power. While I generally abhor dubs of any sort, I have to attest to the sheer quality of the film’s English voice cast (which includes impressive performances from Sean Penn and Iggy Pop) and subsequent English-language mix. At the same time, purists should also be happy to know the original French-language track sounds better than ever.
Dialogue is crisp, nicely weighted and centered, and perfectly prioritized in both mixes. While some may assume ‘Persepolis’ would be a talky bore, the film regularly focuses on tank assaults, collapsing buildings, gunfire, and other LFE-laden elements. The rear surrounds are aggressive to say the least, effectively recreating the immersive sounds of environmental ambiance, crumbling bricks, and falling debris. Better still, the film’s rock-heavy soundtrack blasts quite a few classics through the speakers, blessing Marjane’s tale with a one-two punch of authority and resonance. Through it all, pans remain transparent (particularly for an 2D animated film), directionality is spot on, and the soundfield is expansive.
Sure, there are scenes that feel a bit front heavy and some that forget to utilize the rear speakers for interior acoustics, but the tracks are by and large faultless representations of the original theatrical experience. Fans will not be disappointed.
The Blu-ray edition of ’Persepolis’ includes all of the special features that appear on its standard DVD counterpart. While lacking in a few areas, the only real complaint I can drum up is that the video content is presented in fairly bland standard definition.
’Persepolis’ is an excellent animated film that educates and entertains; a rare combination of cinematic virtues all too often absent from today’s films. This Blu-ray edition is worth your attention as well. It features a gorgeous video transfer that energizes the black and white animation, a powerful TrueHD audio track that handles war and punk rock with the same tenacity, and a nice collection of supplements that fills in the gaps of the production. In all, ‘Persepolis’ is a film everyone should try and one with which many will fall in love.