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Behind the Veil


If you want a barometer to measure the mood of America in the early part of 2008, consider this year's Oscar nominees. The best picture contenders include one story about misanthropic self-obsession (There Will Be Blood), one about the impotence of virtue in the face of evil (No Country for Old Men), one about the indelible consequences of misguided actions (Atonement) and one about corporate indifference to human suffering (Michael Clayton). There's only one upbeat picture on this list, Juno, and it's about teenage pregnancy. Meanwhile, the favorite for the best animated feature isn't exactly Shrek. Rather, it's Persepolis, the story of an Iranian child whose family members are tortured and imprisoned by the Shah and then murdered by the Islamic revolutionaries who topple that leader. Informative and affecting it is, but cheery and hopeful it's not. Written and directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud and based on Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novels, Persepolis is a daunting story of optimistic folly and narrow-minded cruelty. As related here in flat, black-and-white images, Marjane is born into a prosperous, educated family in Tehran in the late 1960s. The culture she grows up in is thoroughly modern. Neither Marjane's mother nor grandmother wear the veil, and both have lively, outspoken personalities. Marjane's grandmother is particularly salty, and her frank and colorful commentary provides the film with most of the limited humor it possesses. As a result of her rich family life, Marjane grows up vivacious, independent and inquisitive. These are not traits that will equip her well to deal with the changes that begin in her country when she's about 10.

Marjane's family has long been opposed to the dictatorial rule of the Shah. A grandfather and other relatives have been imprisoned for opposing the Shah's policies. Her uncle Anouche served 12 years of hard time and was tortured for his left-wing beliefs. So everybody in the family is encouraged when street protests and other revolutionary activities drive the Shah from power. All the Satrapis believe that Iran is poised to become a truly democratic state. Anouche in particular, with his years of faith in Marxist-Leninist philosophy, defends the early excesses of the new revolutionary leadership as necessary to purge the nation of all vestiges of the Shah's rule. But Anouche's ideas are hardly those of the Islamic fundamentalists now running the country, and he's soon back in jail and ultimately is executed, while all the women in the family are forced to cloak themselves from head to toe in black cloth.

Once the American embassy hostages were released in January 1981, the United States citizenry generally turned its attention away from the continuing troubles in Iran. Persepolis shows us aspects of life there from an insider's point of view. The bearded, rifle-toting storm troopers in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard function as thought and cultural compliance police, harassing women whose head scarves may reveal a strand of hair or whose cloak hem may rise high enough to display a patch of ankle. Remarkably, Persepolis suggests, life behind closed doors continues with a stubborn gaiety. Everywhere, the veil is shucked off. Parties flourish as they might in Paris or New York. Alcohol is purchased on the black market or brewed in the basement. Michael Jackson and ABBA blare from the stereo, and Marjane and her friends dance the night away in defiance. But always at the risk of arrest, imprisonment, torture and, in the case of women, sanctioned rape.

Persepolis also insists that we face the terrible cost of the Iraq-Iran war that was waged across Mesopotamia throughout most of the 1980s, a war in which the U.S. remained officially neutral but tilted toward the forces of Saddam Hussein. Millions died. Cities were decimated. And saddest of all, the grip of Islamic fascists in Iran was greatly strengthened.

Because Marjane's personality derives from the other women in her family, she becomes a young woman loath to hold her tongue. She covers her head as she must, but frequently loses the battle to keep from speaking her mind. In the end, to protect her, the family sends her out of the country. In Austria and later in France, she is free to tell her story " but in melancholy isolation from those she loves. At other times, this story might be told as one of triumph, but in a world rent with omnipresent and unceasing violence, the somber and worried view from Persepolis is little different from the other honored films this year.

Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi's animated memoir about growing up in Iran before and after the Islamic revolution. - 2007 SONY PICTURES CLASSICS
  • 2007 Sony Pictures Classics
  • Persepolis is Marjane Satrapi's animated memoir about growing up in Iran before and after the Islamic revolution.

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