A 37-year-old Iranian woman has been surprisingly successful in the rough and tumble business of movie-making thanks to a simple idea that is both gentle and subversive. "Persepolis," the film based on Marjane Satrapi's comic of the same name and co-directed by her with Vincent Paronnaud, is already running successfully in 10 countries and is poised to capture hearts across the globe, as unlikely as that may have seemed at first.
Why unlikely? Because in "Persepolis" Satrapi is simply looking back on her own life and telling the story in a highly unostentatious way. She grew up in Tehran as part of a loving, middle-class family that was critical of the Shah's regime and then witnessed the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, the subsequent fundamentalist dictatorship and the war between Iran and Iraq.
Her parents arranged for her to be smuggled out of the country so she could attend secondary school in Vienna for a few years. As a young woman, she returned voluntarily to the sinister place that her country of birth had become. Then, following a marriage both brief and unhappy, she decided to immigrate to France for good. There, the graphic artist took some time out before deciding to tell her story in the form of a graphic novel.
Things did not just turn out that way; it was as if Satrapi needed to do something to escape her growing inner darkness: "I could have gone on hating forever, and that would have made me like them. So I told myself: Hey, do what artists do: Think about it and write it down."
And her comic book is really a form of writing. The story is told in stark black-and-white images with a relatively large amount of text alongside strong images reminiscent of woodcuts. The flat, two-dimensional images form a cinematic language easily understood by everyone.
The story is made universal by the fact that the adolescent Marjane articulates the trials of puberty with the same intensity and in the same slightly hysterical voice with which she describes the terror of war and of the Iranian dictatorship. The teenager's loneliness and the terrible fear of being ugly -- felt just as deeply in Tehran as anywhere else -- are not sidelined as trivial in the comic and film. Marjane never forgets the tension between dramatic experiences and the apparently petty problems she goes through.
The schoolgirl has only just escaped the worst of all possible worlds when she is depicted as absorbed in the joys of consumerism, wandering through a Viennese supermarket. The moral trauma of the survivor is still ravaging her sensitive soul when a pimple throws her into despair. And when she eventually falls in love and is cheated on, her solitary immigrant's existence is dealt a final blow: "I had lived through a revolution through which I lost part of my family. I had survived a war that had estranged me from my country and my family ... and a banal love story came close to finishing me off."
The deserved success of "Persepolis" is also due to its aesthetic: The bold black-and-white style not only saves it from being kitsch it also sidesteps the dilemmas that politically committed films inevitably face, especially when they come from another cultural tradition: How to at least occasionally represent the sinister mullahs in such a way that the viewer can glimpse the human beings beneath the turban? How to give female characters in black robes some kind of personality? How to decently maneuver one's way through the eternal tension between clarity of expression and political commitment on the one hand, and kitsch and propaganda on the other?
The choice of the graphic novel, which relinquishes the need to suggest colors and smells or atmosphere and scenic depth, removes the burden of having to maintain inner distance and allows the viewer to develop a sense of empathy with the essential elements of the story: When little black figures in silhouette are seen crossing a minefield and exploding at regular intervals, it reveals the insanity of the war between Iran and Iraq in a far more disturbing way than a technicolor close-up of someone dramatically drawing their last breath would.
Marjane Satrapi uses these apparently simple techniques to outsmart not just all forms of propaganda, but also our own visual habits and expectations. Subversive, charming and full of humor, Satrapi has created a truly great work of art.