Dressed in black and looking for all the world like a panel from one of her own comics, cartoonist and filmmaker Marjane Satrapi sat smoking in a conference room at the Hotel Monaco, a mole on her nose just like the dot found on the face of her two-dimensional counterpart—the bold, irreverent heroine of her autobiographical graphic novels Persepolis and Persepolis II. When I asked her if she was allowed to smoke in the room, she looked at me pityingly, as though the question revealed the timidity of my fundamentally conventional soul: "No, I am not, but I do it anyway. If I didn't do what was forbidden, I would die."
Turns out that the similarities between Marjane the cartoon and Marjane the person don't end with the dot on her nose: In the flesh, Satrapi is just as outspoken and passionate as she presents herself in her books. Satrapi's 2-D doppelganger has recently gotten new life on the big screen, in an excellent animated treatment that condenses the events of the two books into a frank, poignant coming-of-age story that surpasses its source material in both visual elegance and storytelling economy.
The story opens in Iran on the eve of the Iranian Revolution, in which the Shah's monarchy was overthrown and replaced with a repressive fundamentalist regime. The young Marjane, spunky and outspoken, chafes at the restrictions placed on her—rebelling by listening to Iron Maiden and questioning why girls must wear headscarves, until her parents send her to study in Vienna. In Austria, she finds that her fellow students identify her with the very cultural ideas she left Iran to escape; but when she returns to Iran, she finds she no longer fits in there, either.
Marjane's struggle to define herself is at the heart of the film, a struggle that wrenches her away from her family and across cultural comfort zones. The story is told beautifully, black-and-white hand-drawn images and simple effects conveying both the ugliness of an oppressive regime and the simple, sweet nostalgia of childhood remembered.
When I asked Satrapi if her film had a political agenda, she demurred, insisting that Persepolis is first and foremost a coming-of-age story that "could have happened anywhere, to anyone."
"Political for me is like a leaflet. Political movies give answers. I don't have any answers, only questions," she told me. "We started the movie two and a half years ago, and Iran was really not a subject of interest then. It happens that it is now, which is appropriate... because maybe it could make people think that these people you are scared of, they are not people with knives between their teeth, waiting to kill the Westerners. They are just people. If the film could help people just look at others as human beings [then] that is the biggest goal that I could have in my life. I don't have any more pretensions than that. That's already a lot."