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Saturday, November 15, 2008

The Persepolis Experience

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Okay, so nowadays I am on a graphic novel spree. Having devoured Art Spiegelman’s “Maus” (although an outstandingly original work,Persepolis is unmistakeably influenced by “Maus”) Alan Moore’s “From Hell” and closer home, Sarnath Bannerjee’s refreshing debut “Corridor” in the last few weeks, I have read precious little apart from graphic novels lately….. One of the topics that has been done to death whenever we talk about graphic novels or comic-books in general is how the medium is in sync with cinema(although this has its opponents, most notably Alan Moore, who commented that during the 80’s and the early 90’s he concentrated on making comic-books which were , well, unfilmable…….let’s see what he makes of the upcoming Watchmen movie…more about that in a later post!)

Therefore I was pretty excited about watching Marjane Satrapi’s animated film “Persepolis” . I read the graphic novel ( both volumes of it), on my laptop in one go, so jaw-droppingly good it was. It is at once an intensely personal memoir and a mirror which looks into Iran’s troubled past and asks some questions which cut uncomfortably close to the bone. Beginning with young Marjane or Marji’s childhood, we are led on a journey which tells us more about the oppressive regime of the Shah , and the subsequent revolt, than any number of history books could. By the time Marjane is a troubled teenager, a drifter and finally a somewhat mellowed young adult , we are totally engrossed by the simply yet beautifully told story.

Given that the film is co-directed by Satrapi herself, who wrote and drew the book, the film manages to capture the essence of the 350-odd pages over a mere 85 or so minutes. The film is full of highly poignant moments, like the one where Marji realizes how utterly lone she is in France, or the one where she gets expelled from her school for speaking out against the regime, or the one where she meets her favourite uncle in jail for the last time……. The direction is warm, sensitive and funny. In fact, perhaps because I loved the book so much, I felt a bit disappointed because some of the delicious scenes in the book, especially in the second volume, never make the cut in the film. This is one of the reasons why I believe that, ideally, The Persepolis Experience firmly consists of both the novel and the film, in that order.

It is unbelievable that “Persepolis” did not win the Academy Award for Best Animated Film, (though it did win the Prix du Jury at Cannes) pipped to the post by Ratatouille, which was funny but, frankly wasn’t even in the same ballpark as this unassuming masterpiece. The film is searingly honest, as it uses the cliches of the bildungsroman(the coming-of-age tale) to chronicle the horrors of living in fear and risking one’s freedom for one’s principles. The structure of the film is such that as the child Marji grows up , previously everyday incidents now take up sinister undertones as she starts to realize the complex dynamics of her homeland. Note that when Marji is brought upto date on the events of her homeland by her father, she reacts not as the adult she has become, but as the child she once was.

Her attempts to lead a life the way she deems fit, with all the trappings of American culture (complete with smuggled Iron Maiden posters) make for some darkly funny moments. The scene where she lets go of her boyfriend’s hand at the wheel stayed with me, as is the one where her mother is verbally abused by one of the moral police hounds. The often trouble nature of Marji’s own morals is all-too clear, as shown by the scene where she falsely accuses a random stranger of making lewd advances, just because she could…… But all is not gloomy and dark, as Marjane does encounter a truly religious person, albeit towards the fag end of the film.

At this point, I must admit that I am in complete awe( and when I say awe, I mean the college-kid droolfest variety)of Satrapi as a writer and an artist……part of it because she is every bit the classic “rebel” intellectual, always stepping on politically correct toes, never giving a damn about how her works are perceived, (a later book, Embroideries, has a story line about an Iranian mother of four who has no clue what the male organ looks like…..) perennially with a cigarette on her lips( she once joked about wanting to be the “world champion in smoking”) she cuts quite a figure and she knows it.

Persepolis will stay with you long after the credits have rolled down……it’s an experience you are unlikely to forget in a hurry.

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