“Freedom always comes at a price,” Marjane (voiced in French by Chiara Mastroianni) tells us, towards the end of the film, Persepolis (2007), as she arrives in Europe for the second time. It’s the early 1990s. Marjane, who we first meet as a feisty girl in 1978 is a young woman by this stage. She’s recently divorced, and suffocating under the repressive limits of life in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Prior to her brief marriage, she was arrested for publicly holding hands with a man. Her punishment: pay a fine or be lashed. Her father (Simon Akbarian) pays up and remarks that when he and her mother (Catherine Deneuve) were teenagers, they could walk openly holding hands. “To think, it was the same country.”
Persepolis is a mostly black and white animation based on Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel of the same name (first published in 2000). The two-dimensional illustrations, simply and powerfully depict the story of Satrapi’s coming-of-age, against the backdrop of her life before and during the Islamic or Iranian Revolution, and its bloody aftermath.
As Marji’s father suggests in the film adapted and directed by Satrapi along with Vincent Parronaud, Iran does in fact appear like two different countries. She was a child when the Revolution removed the Shah. She became a woman when the Islamic regime rolled progress back. Marji’s family is secular, moderate, intellectual, and politically left wing. Before the revolution, they attend parties where people drink and smoke and debate politics and sex. But after the revolution, these parties are pushed underground. They become illegal gatherings with alcohol transported in petrol cans. As Marji explains, continuing to meet friends like this was risky, but the parties “were our only breathing space.”
When Persepolis begins in 1978, Tehran’s streets are a mass of demonstrations and cries to bring down the Shah. Marji’s family, like many, is full of hope and joy at the prospect of political change. As her father points out to her, “this regime is doomed. One day it’ll fall.” And fall it does. The Shah left Iran in exile in January 1979, and the Ayatollah Khomeini became Supreme leader later that year. But the new democracy that was hoped for doesn’t come.
Rather Iranian society closes in on itself when Islamic fundamentalists win the majority in the subsequent referendum. A theocratic state, the Islamic Republic of Iran, is established, and with it a period of brutal oppression. Arrest and torture faced those who opposed the new order. Rights and freedoms, especially women’s, were curtailed. Universities were purged of dissidents. Newspapers were monitored and closed. Drug and sexual offences were punishable by death. As Marji explains, “We all lived in fear.”
Although the Shah’s regime was widely thought corrupt and extravagant, it was also a time of cultural openness and liberalism. Persepolis renders the contrasts between life before and after the Revolution as starkly as the black and white images. As a little girl, Marji has a lively, cheeky nature. She’s curious about everything and prone to all the flights of fancy of youth – she even believes herself a prophet appointed by God. Marji loves Western culture, especially Bruce Lee and the Bee Gees. Later, once the new regime is in place, it bans Western culture. Pop music could only be sourced through the black market. Marji replaces the Bee Gees with Iron Maiden and launches her own rebellion – adding a handcrafted ‘Punk is not ded’ jacket to her school uniform.
We see Iranian history through Marji’s eyes – a nation’s revolt echoed in her own internal upheavals. She shows us how it was to live through this turbulent period in history by showing us how it felt for her and her family. Persepolis is too subjective to be a documentary, yet it is a document of a time. Politics is explained through personal experience, and history becomes a record of memories, individual and collective. “I remember,” Marji’s voiceover begins, as she guides us through her own history. In this way, Persepolis is a both a memoir of Marjane Satrapi’s early life, and a history book of the political, social, and cultural upheavals of Iran since the late 1970s.
Persepolis also offers insights into gender politics, perhaps without intending to. It is explicitly the experience of a woman coming-of-age in Iran, at a time when what it meant to be a woman in Iran changed dramatically. Satrapi has said that Persepolis was not intended to make a political statement; but a statement is inescapable when the predominant curtailing of freedom that we witness is a limiting of Marji’s bodily and sexual liberty because she is female.
It’s clear in a striking sequence in which the darkening days of the war ends with a curtain closing on the past. This shot dissolves into a classroom of girls, including Marji, all now veiled. Their female teachers wear the chador. The veil is espoused as “a symbol of freedom” and women’s bodies are policed everywhere they go. Men on the street shout, “Fix your scarf, sister!” Later, Marji is ordered to “Explain your clothing!” by teachers who pull down her veil, and declare her Michael Jackson badge a “symbol of Western decadence!” It’s funny, but threatening too; the opaque black space of the teacher’s chador looms like a menace hungry to swallow Marji whole.
"To watch Iranian women challenge authority is also to watch them challenge conventional views in the West of them as subservient and exploited and little else."
Acts of female rebellion are common in Iranian cinema. To watch Iranian women challenge authority is also to watch them challenge conventional views in the West of them as subservient and exploited and little else. Marji struggles with the way the world seeks to remake her, but remains fearless – arguing with teachers and authority figures even when it puts her at risk. Persepolis, like so many of the best of films made by Iranian filmmakers from home or in exile, shows that the reality of women’s experience is far more interesting than the stereotypes suggest.
As Marji grows up, the noose of oppression tightens. She’s sent overseas to study, because her family fear her temperament will make it difficult for her to stay out of trouble. Away from home, Marji goes through some tough times, and feels dislocated when she returns. But there is plenty of humour. A sequence in which Marji attempts to revive her passion for life, draws on some of the more recognisable clichés of body fashioning for women – the pains of leg waxing and Jane Fonda style aerobics workouts, all choreographed to the song ‘The Eye of the Tiger.’
Throughout the social and personal upheavals, Marjane is grounded by the close relationship she has with her grandmother (voiced by the great French actress, Danielle Darrieux). Marji’s grandmother reminds her, “Keep your dignity and stay true to yourself.” In this way, Persepolis is an act of remembrance and forgiveness for the past. Satrapi imagines her life in black and white, but her strength, passion, and wit, reminds us that it’s anything but.
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