Friday, February 08, 2008

Persepolis (2007) Redux


I saw Persepolis for the second time today. After first seeing the film at last year's Toronto Film Festival, I wrote this rave review for Jeffrey Overstreet's site, Looking Closer. Later, not surprisingly, it topped my list of favorite films of 2007.

Revisiting a film that affected you so strongly and positively is always a risky proposition, but Persepolis stood up to a second viewing for me. Rather than being one of those films where rewatching simply reminded me in a nostalgic way of how much I enjoyed it the first time, Persepolis gave me new insights and fostered deeper appreciation as I began to notice more (and more complex) connections and themes than I had at first glance.

I had remembered Marjane's briefly mentioned renewed friendship with a childhood friend who was now in a wheelchair as the result of war, but I hadn't quite gotten around to linking it in my mind to an earlier conversation in which Marjane's father talks a neighbor's son out of going to war himself or a family relative talking about no longer having a foot because it was the focus of his captor's tortures. The causes and agents of these two men's sufferings are different, yet the effect of juxtaposing them makes us ask how much difference that would make to the the broken man. (Not that the film embraces moral relativism or moral equivalence. Marjane in Vienna balks at her peer's nihilism precisely because she refuses to say her uncle suffered and died for nothing and can't quite bring herself to believe that choosing to suffer for your beliefs is not somehow different than being forced to suffer to support someone else's--which in turn contextualizes her grandmother's emphasis on personal integrity and moral indignation when Marjane causes an innocent bystander to suffer by falsely reporting him to the police in order to get out of a jam herself.)

I had previously mentioned an imaginary conversation between Marjane, Karl Marx, and God as one that had an ecumenical flavor and portrayed God in a sympathetic light--caring more for the individual's hurts and her ideological purity. What I was reminded of in a second viewing is that after some early appearances God had been largely absent from Marjane's imaginative life since the child Marjane had ordered him to go away in a fit of grief upon learning about her uncle's death. Or that the child Marjane who wanted to be a prophet had a creed she recited for her grandmother that said mostly that people should be good, the innocent should not suffer, the poor should be attended. It is not God that abandons Marjane but Marjane who gradually grows away from her child-like, innate moral sense of God, replacing it with a more ideological conception of Him and with political idols that falsely promise to address the injustices she so painfully accuses God of ignoring. Alienated, depressed, contemplating (perhaps actually attempting) suicide, Marjane reconnects with her childhood image of God and now her conceptions about who cares have been reversed as the almighty raises one skeptical eyebrow in the face of Marx's relentless and vacuous rambling about keeping up the struggle.

I thought about small moments in the film that fit together and comment on one another. Marjane tells about hearing how in the latter days of the Iran-Iraq war, Tehran endured twenty consecutive days of bombing. It was almost, she suggests, as though they were attempting to wipe it off the map. That failed attempt imbues two later moments with meaning. When Marjane's father pays a fine to get her out of the police station, he recalls how he and Marjane's mother walked through the city hand in hand. "This same city," he says, sweeping his arms across the vista of Tehran. Only it is no longer the same city. The Tehran of his memory and of her mother's, is irretrievably lost, replaced by a hollow shell of what it once was. When Marjane relates the death of her grandmother at the end of the film, that death has poignancy not just because of the personal relationship she had with Marjane but because it is the beginning of the end of the generation that remembers Tehran as it once was.

This theme of remembrance of things past is actually pretty pervasive in the film, more so than I first realized. It is clear from Satrapi's comments about the film, for instance on The Colbert Report, that it was and is important to her to present Iranians to the rest of the world as human beings rather than stereotypes. But it was equally clear to me on a second viewing that there is a mournful quality to the film that extends beyond self-pity or sorrow for personal connections and opportunities that are lost. When Marjane visits the Caspian Sea and then the prison where her uncle died before leaving Iran, I could not help but think of A Promise to the Dead, and Ariel Dorfman's similar attempts to describe how strong a pull a place can have on us and how heavy is the burden of having to be a voice for those who cannot speak themselves.

There are scads of little moments in Persepolis that give it an authenticity and complexity one rarely finds in commercial, narrative films. These moments are made all the more powerful because the film trusts the audience to think about what it sees and doesn't have to triply underline all its points. Marjane's mother sheds a tear of rage while driving when forced to endure the first misogynist insult by a stranger on the street, not merely because of what it is but because she knows it is the first of many surrenders to come. A forger of passport's takes in a female refugee with no other explanation than that she has nowhere else to go. Marjane ironically opines that she survived a revolution but was nearly killed by a broken heart from a banal love affair. There's even a wonderful little exchange when a police car with a bullhorn orders Marjane to stop running in the street because it causes her behind to sway in an obscene manner. Says a fed-up Marjane, "Then don't look at my ass!"

This last example may not have an exact mirror moment, but it does juxtapose nicely with Marjane's college protest after being lectured on the importance of modesty by immodest men for the umpteenth time. It is the ability (perhaps the necessity) of swallowing big indignities but drawing the line at some petty injustice that helps me identify with Marjane on a human level in spite of cultural differences. "How dare you lie to us!" she yells at a teacher. Spin is annoying in any circumstances, but when the spin negates or denies the imprisonment, torture, and deaths of thousands it becomes something more than annoying. It becomes immoral. [And in the spirit of letting people make their own connections, I will let people contemplate for themselves whether there are any comparable examples of world leaders lying to their citizens to justify actions or decisions that contributed to the deaths of thousands.]

Since I've no doubt offended 98% of the people who might possibly read my blog, let me take the last paragraph to go for the last 2% by saying that if any one film suffers in comparison to Persepolis it would have to be Ratatouille, which would otherwise be a shoo-in for that award that begins with a capital "O." Oh, it will probably win any way just because so many more people will have seen it than Persepolis. And don't get me wrong, it's a fine film. Quite frankly, it may have surpassed The Rescuers Down Under as my favorite film ever that features a talking rodent. Maybe next week somebody can explain to me how Horton Hears a Who is a greater artistic achievement than The Man Who Planted Trees, or why we need a separate category in said awards for animated films. A good film is a good film, period. Ratatouille is a good film, but Persepolis is a freaking masterpiece. Rataouille benefits from being compared to other films in a genre (I use the term very loosely) that normally gives us Shrek and Surf's Up. Persepolis, the graphic novel, is already being included in some college textbooks as a canonical work of literature, and Persepolis the film is a worthy and important adaptation of it. If pointing that out makes me an indie or foreign film snob, so be it.

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