THE PROBLEM WITH REVOLUTION—or change of any sort, really—is that there is no guarantee that what comes next will be any better. And to the statement, Well it can’t get any worse, the correct response is, Well, yes, actually, it can. In 1978, Iran was a secular country in which women could wear what they wanted, couples could hold hands and so on. But it was very far from free—there were arrests for political dissent and multiparty rule was dismissed—and in 1978, the people overthrew the Shah. Unfortunately, as often happens at these times, the Shah was replaced by a far more oppressive figure: the Islamic fundamentalist Ayatollah Khomeini. By 1982 Khomeini had made himself Supreme Leader and Iran was an Islamic state of velayat-e faqih design.
It is this story which is told in Persepolis through the eyes of Marjane Satrapi, whose independence and strong will put her at odds with the authoritarian regime to such an extent that her parents send her away to Vienna at the age of nine. There, she lives a relatively ordinary Western life–interspersed with plenty of condescension from her peers–until, after a string of setbacks, she feels the pull of her former home and returns to Iran. It is an Iran now policed by a cadre of bearded, thuggish police, who tell Marjane’s mother, for the crime of not having headscarf pulled tight enough around her head, that “I fuck whores like you and throw them in the trash.”
Persepolis is a lo-fi animated adaptation of Satrapi’s comic book which jumps back and forth between the present, in which the adult Marjane sits in the airport, and the past. The scenes set in the past are drawn in an elegant black and white, which, though a common enough way to depict the past, reflects Marjane’s view of the world: you are either free or you are not. That way of thinking is in part imbued in her by her grandmother, a witty and fiercely moral woman who at one point chastises her teenage granddaughter for letting another—admittedly unsympathetic—person take the fall for something she has done. “In-teg-ri-té!” the woman shouts.
In many ways Persepolis is a cautionary tale, in the sense that it illustrates the rapid loss of freedoms over the course of a generation. And how much things do change: the tearful mother of Marjane—who is nine years old at the time—tells her daughter, in a memorable scene, that if she continues to show open defiance to the regime she will be arrested, raped and forced to marry a much older man.
Oscar Wilde said that artists were the quintessential individualists, and you have to wonder, as you watch Persepolis, if he may have had a point. Many of the assorted problems Satrapi faced over the course of her young life stemmed from her uncompromising desire to be free to do and think and say as she wished. But Marjane also wrestles with her identity as an Iranian in the same way that the country does. She feels the pull of a place in which she cannot be herself and stay out of prison or worse.
Persepolis is a funny and moving and authentic film, simply told and beautifully made. Like Waltz with Bashir, Satrapi finds herself with a riveting and important story to tell, and the means at her disposal with which to do so. And so Persepolis feels deeply personal: it is made in a way unique to its creator about its creator. It tells a story of the internal chaos and transformation of a person just as it tells a story of the internal chaos and transformation of her homeland.