Being one of those awful lefties, I have always been interested in the unofficial stories of history. When I was at school and asked to learn the names of King's wives and the dates of when nice white people found out where the rest of the world lived, history seemed a rather poor soap opera. The textbooks were never enough for me and I found myself drawn to personal accounts and tales of extrordinary people lost in the unravelling of time. It was only when I read books like An Evil Cradling and Long Walk to Freedom that I found myself connected to the past from the point of view of people who had live through and often despite it. Often people who have found themselves crushed and beaten down by events have no other recourse than to record their experience and hope that their example will balance the official whitewashed version.
Persepolis is very definitely a film which attempts to provide a unique view of a very important time in our modern history. It is a first person account of the experience of growing up in pre-revolutionary Iran, that moves into the changes in that countrys culture over the thirty years since the overthrow of the Shah. More than that, the film attempts to place Iran in the context of its colonial history and illustrate the British and American influence within the national politics. The movie does this by using a young girl learning her history the hard way by living through it.
As an animated film largely shown in black and white, with flashes of colour, Persepolis is an unusual beast. I have been aware of a number of similar live action films using this kind of historical narrative from a single person, but this is the first film tackling a real history that I have seen in this form. A part of me is rather conflicted with the idea of real-life being depicted in cartoon form as this makes the representation seem all the more partial and open to manipulation. Are the horrible crimes of the Shah best represented by drawings, and is the cultural repression of the Imams really the subject for a comic approach?
Persepolis is ambitious in trying to mix themes of growing up, geo-politics and one of the most tumultuous national stories of the last 30 years, and for the most part it does work. The film suffers from the usual limited perspective of this kind of personal account by being a story of a reasonably priviliged middle class child rather than the daughter of a window cleaner, and consequently some of the angst occasionally comes over as a little whiny but the audacity of the heroine is to be celebrated as much as her self-involvement. Having the guts to shout down radical students and to confront boorish hypocritical men in a society ran by them is real courage and something that few possess.
Persepolis is also quite nuanced in the history it tells. It explains the joy at the Shah's overthrow by the strange coalition of leftists and religious institutions, and it allows the hope of revolution to breath, before the effects of the Iran-Iraq war with its ideological recruitment of young men to a supposedly holy cause brings about theocracy. This helps to explain a difficult time without resorting to easy monsters and simple stereotypes, and the central character is allowed to be painted as just as flawed and making her own mistakes as well.
Allowing for all of the above I was still left a little non-plussed. It is not that this is not an extraordinary life well worth telling the audience about, but it was more a rather egocentric narrative which is wholly dependent on whether you end up liking the central character. For this reason, I might have found the same mode of storytelling by a daughter of a road sweeper compelling but here my own class bias leaves me less convinced of whether I care so much about the kind of family that is humiliated by asking its former window cleaner for help.
For all of its attempts to get me on side with Marjane, I got rather annoyed at her cutesiness and long adolescence. I think it may give some people a deeper understanding of Iran, but it will be mainly talking to the people who already know what it wants to say. If you want your nice liberal views supported by someone then you will enjoy Persepolis, if like me you'd like the whole thing to be a little less about liking the author and accepting her view on the world, you may be appreciative but less impressed.
Persepolis comes on a single disc with over two hours of extras included. The disc is dual layer and region free, and the menus are animated as beautifully as the main picture. The anamorphic transfer for the feature is sharp with excellent contrast boasting strong blacks and whites with plenty of subtlety and definition in between. You might ask whether a slightly higher bitrate could have been used if the extras had been relegated to their own disc, but this is quite a short movie so the improvement on a dual layer disc may have been quite small.
The sound comes with a choice of the original dub in stereo and 5.1, and the same choice in the English tracks. The surround tracks have strong subwoofer elements picking up the distinctive ambience of settings like airports and busy streets, and the rear speakers find themselves used extensively by the score. I didn't notice a lot of difference between the stereo track played in pro-logic mode and the 5.1 mix apart from reduced bass response, so the 5.1 mixes are not that elaborate. Both language options are clear and well mixed with no distortion or source issues to note.
The extras begin with a short depressing, anti-capitalist cartoon by co-director Paronnaud where black humour is mixed with seering resentment for the "system". It lacks humanity, is rather too pleased with itself and reaks of adolescent dogma. There is then a raft of interviews with other comic artists, the co-director and Gena Rowlands. Joe Sacco talks about meeting Marjane and discovering her original comic of this story, he compares himself to her and discusses the extra license that comic art gives her story. Next up with absolutely no eye contact and lots of thumb twiddling is Vincent Paronnaud who talks about meeting Marjane and helping her with her work and then making the film together. He says that Persepolis was an "overdose" for him and he couldn't wait to get back to making short films.
Brian K Vaughan is the next talking head, another comic book writer who has written for the TV series Lost. He covers similar territory to Sacco - reading Persepolis for the first time, the line between old comic art and the serious use that Marjane has put it to, and he concludes by talking about his work. Gena Rowlands talks about providing her voice for the English version of the film and being won over by the comic book. Her contribution is very hard to follow as she seems very uneasy and twitchy and she is shot with far too much lighting.
The making of is entitled, in English, The Hidden Face of Persepolis and brings Marjane out front and center. We see her and Paronnaud working in their studio and hear the story of how they started their professional relationship. Then the approach to adapting the comic books into a screenplay is examined. The dialogue is recorded and then the artists draw what they feel matches the performances from Marjane's instructions and miming of the characters. From the finished visuals, the sound effects are added and we meet Chiara Mastrionanni who talks about recording her dialogue and we see her being directed. This is a good short documentary which will prove enlightening to fans of the film.
The final extra is the theatrical trailer which is awful with raspy voiceover and "in a world" portentous narration.
I didn't like this as much as Noel did in his earlier review which you will see in the side-panel. I am quite willing to say that might be my prejudice and would recognise what a huge achievement this film is. The extras provided on this disc will give fans of the material more to hunt out but for more casual viewers they may prefer skipping straight to the making of featurette.