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Persepolis – A Review

A lot of arthouse movies are boring. Some are boring because they’re pretentious. Some are boring because they’re too long. Some seem to lack any point in favour of existing altogether. No one talks about this, of course. It’s like Nicole Kidman’s use of botox; the single-expression elephant in the room. Take Persepolis. It’s boring. The comics were good. The movie… Not so much. Is any notable critic going to say this? Did any notable critic admit Blackboards (iterant teachers, Iran/Iraq border, SUFFERING) made them lose the will to live? No. Only a philistine would say an arthouse movie was boring… Well, bugger it. I’m a philistine. Persepolis sucks.

Marjane Satrapi has led an interesting life. Her decision to write her autobiography as a comic book makes her life more interesting yet. Anyone who’s read Persepolis comes away with a lot of valuable insights about life in Iran; about tolerance; about the fierce individualism that rebuts extremes of religion and politics; about the kind of person who might save us all in the fight between Middle East and West. Marjane was born in Tehran a few years before the Islamic Revolution. Persepolis is the story of how her family coped with a decade of war and religious fanaticism. It is a tender, sad, sometimes very funny account of a young woman trying to strike a balance between being Iranian and not losing her mind. It’s the story of the War on Terror, as described by one of us poor beggars; the millions forced to take a side.

So why am I ragging on Persepolis? It’s an important book. Doesn’t that make it an important movie? Well… No. Not every book should be a movie (this goes double for comic books, triple for Sin City). Persepolis works in comic book form because you can dip in and out of it. Like most autobiographies, there is no story; there’s a series of fragments. Some are funny, some are terrifying. All of them look tempting to put on screen. But the film-makers of Persepolis forgot that movies aren’t good with fragments. Movies need story. You can’t just tell a story. To bring Persepolis to life properly on screen requires a lot more than hiring Sean Penn to do a voice-over (which was also a mistake, for different reasons). There is almost nothing so excruciating in cinema as listening to a story instead of watching it unfold.

Taken as separate anecdotes, however, there are a lot of good stories in Persepolis. I’m not sure they work as well as they did on the page, but… Hell. I don’t want to be negative for a whole review. It’s impossible not to be charmed by pre-teen “Marji”. Her obsession with Iron Maiden still comes across as heroic (though isn’t trying to love ’Maiden heroic in itself?) There’s a crushing moment when Marji discovers a friend under the rubble of a bombed building. And delight when Marji talks to God (cloud, beard, best described as “grandfatherly”). Marji’s family probably wasn’t as wise and kind and generous as she remembers them, but they’re her family, so she’s entitled to finesse. What comes through, whatever form Persepolis takes, is the humanity of the Satrapi family. These people deserved better than the world gave.

I wish Persepolis weren’t boring. I liked the books. But I have to review the movie. And lord it drrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrags. There’s a certain kind of arthouse movie (this is one, Blackboards was another) that while your heart might see the need for it, your head says: Yawn. You will be bored by Persepolis. You will sit there, in the movie theatre, watching a black-and-white French cartoon about an Iranian girl growing up in the 1970s, and it will be just like your friends figured… like watching those iterant teachers get shot at the end of Blackboards: you’ll be checking your watch. I’m not saying that doesn’t make you a philistine. I’m just facing facts.

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