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Persepolis – Black and White in More Ways Than One

It comes as no surprise that Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis has been nominated for an Oscar in the Best Animated Feature category and has won a bevy of other awards as well. Though rendered almost completely in black and white, the images that the film’s animation crew produces are as vibrant and striking in their own way as anything created by the Technicolor masters of a bygone era. More akin to the German expressionistic films from the 1920s than any overproduced Disney affair, the monochromatic palette accurately conveys the emotional turmoil and despair that the film’s protagonist, Satrapi, a young teen, endures while growing up in Iran during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Having had to endure massive social and emotional upheaval due to the violent revolutions and wars that plagued the region during that era, it’s no wonder that the young woman’s life should be recounted in such stark terms.

While the environment Satrapi grew up in was unique, unfortunately, much of her story is not. Despite the fact that the animated aesthetic here is a progressive one, the story is more or less a pedestrian affair. Persepolis charts the trials and tribulations of one young woman’s coming of age replete with scenes of self-loathing and depression, the experience of first love and first heartbreak as well as rebellious behavior involving drug use and social conduct. The intent here is not to minimalize Satrapi’s experiences, which were obviously traumatic and horrific at times, but rather to point out that her story should have been told in a more complete manner so as to do it justice.

Marji (voice by Chaira Mastroianni) is a precocious, intelligent, outspoken young girl and that comes as no surprise to her educated Tehran parents (Simon Abkarian and Catherine Deneuve) who have instilled many of these qualities in her. Caught in the Iranian revolution which saw the Shah deposed and led to the religious radicals taking control, all of which is recapped in an engaging, miniature history lesson, the family finds itself in limbo regarding their social status and consider briefly moving to the States. This is quickly dismissed and they decide to stay, protesting against the increasingly rigid restraints that are placed upon them. Marji, however, does not fully realize how dire the situation is and her outspokenness prompts her parents to send her away to another country, for fear that she may be detained or worse because of her inability to suppress her independent spirit.

Her odyssey takes her to Vienna, where she winds up going from one less than desirable living situation to the next, until she winds up on the streets, homeless and sick. Along the way Marji realizes that she cannot take anyone at face value. The clique of punks who appear to be on the fringe of society prove to be spoiled, dissatisfied middle-class kids, while the two young men she falls for, break her heart, leaving her desolate and inconsolable.

While Marji’s story is an interesting one, it isn’t told in a particularly compelling manner. Inherent in most biographical forms, the film falls into a trap in that it hits upon the major events in the Marji’s life but does so in a quick, cursory manner and fails to provide us with much in the way of the more intimate aspects of her life. Granted, there are some moments early on where Paronnaud takes the time to flesh out some key aspects of Marji’s formative years, particularly during the scenes involving her uncle Anouche (Francois Jerosme), a political activist who meets an ugly end, but stokes the fires of independence and radicalism in his niece. The moments between these two are indeed touching and provide the sort of key bits of information needed to give us a layered, complex character. Unfortunately, moments like these are too few and far between.

What results is a quick overview of Marji’s formative years and the film fails to provide any true emotional resonance because we know very little about what makes her unique. As it is, our heroine comes off as yet another pre-teen who weathers the storms of adolescence to become a young woman full of promise. Marji deserves better than that as Persepolis winds up not only giving us images done in black and white but a narrative as well, where one suffused with shades of gray would have been more rewarding.

Opens today at Boardman’s Art Theatre
Runtime: 1hr 36min – Rated PG-13 – Drama

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