Persepolis: A Stunning Odyssey Distills a Complicated History with a Risk

By Seth Freed Wessler Jan 08, 2008

Persepolis is one of those rare cinematic adaptations that lives up to, and arguably, surpasses its print inspiration. It is a beautiful tale, but in its distillation of history it risks restating what many already assume. Adapted from Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, the animated film is a masterfully drafted, wittily written and deeply personal autobiographical tale. Drawn in Satrapi’s classy and simple aesthetic, the film tells the story of the Iranian revolution and its aftermath through the eyes of one spunky young girl who becomes a young woman in a journey between Iran and Europe and between the often-competing human necessities of supportive embrace and intrepid independence. Through the character’s faceted relationships with her cynical but steadfastly principled Grandmother, her somewhat resigned God (who in a dream appears with a similarly bearded Marx in the heavens), her unendingly supportive parents, her leftist revolutionary uncle, her cheating German boyfriend, numbing Iranian husband and the menacing state, Marjane makes her way to adulthood with a deep sense of self that she fights for every day. She is a complicated and searching figure who will settle for no simplification of life against efforts from multiple political, historical and social forces to do just that. The character of Marjane refuses the kinds of pernicious racialization, essentialization and pigeonholing that Iranians and people from predominantly Muslim countries face. But the characterizations that surround Marjane are not given the same treatment; they do not contain these multitudes. Of course, in any story and perhaps especially in an animated one, simplification is necessary. We cannot do without the use of archetypes because, by and large, that is how we understand the world. But when these archetypes are those of Western and Eastern, religious and secular, educated elite and ignorant poor, there are risks in such dichotomous representation; that they become stereotypes. That the Islamic state is represented by bearded, swarthy, working class men with guns and Marjane’s own family appears in “western” garb is not inconsequential, and I worry that North American audiences will take from these images what they already hear about Iran. It is not so much that the story is wrong, for indeed, these characterizations are likely many people’s very real experiences of post-revolutionary Iran. Nor, necessarily, should the film do anything differently. But my hope is that those who see the film will take with them Marjane’s critical messiness rather than her clearer surroundings.