Monday, May 18, 2009

A Frank Review of "Persepolis" (2007)

The Short Version? Iran So Far Away
What Is It? Animated Biography.
Who Is In It? Voices of Catherine Deneuve, Sean Penn, Iggy Pop, and Gena Rowlands
Should I See It? Yes.

I haven't read Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical comic books about growing up in Iran under the Shah and the Islamic Revolution, but I'm glad I saw the movie. Familiar, comic episodes are set against a thankfully foreign backdrop. Really though, isn't the difference between the heroine's liberal upbringing amidst fundamentalism and life in the States in the same period, surrounded by the "Silent Majority" that demonized Iran, mostly a matter of degrees? I don't mean to diminish the author's harrowing experiences in wartime, but to point out, as the film does, that we're all humans of not-so-dissimilar stripes. How do you not feel a kinship to a protagonist who idolizes Bruce Lee, watches Godzilla movies, and headbangs to Judas Priest?

My first instinct was to watch the English dub with subtitles, but the disparity between the two versions was immediately obvious. The English language edition is inadequate. The script is altered throughout in painful ways, removing most curse words and the superior flow of dialogue in the original French. Where the French version is matter of fact, the American tries to awkwardly embellish; almost in a sense trying to give a more exotic ethnic quality, but missing the point entirely. The dialogue is often turned too literal, and even the more accomplished American actors sound like they're dubbing anime. Sean Penn's voice is affected, while Iggy Pop's is achingly more so. Gena Rowlands fares better.

Gabrielle Lopes Benites plays Marjane as a child, and is reminiscent of the young actors from old Peanuts cartoons. There's a lot of Charlie Brown groaning at the inequities of life as well, usually done tongue in cheek. Chiara Mastroianni is perfect as the teen and adult Marjane, especially her gloriously off-key take on Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" at a pivotal point in the film.

The animation is gorgeous, taking advantage of the high contrast black and white to render the figures lushly and the characters universal. Art deco, German impressionism, graytones, scrapings... the decision to go mainly monochromatic allowed for a great many interesting techniques to meld seamlessly with the otherwise accessible presentation. Persepolis can be viewed by just about any audience, with some taking in only the personal narrative, while others can enjoy the politics and allusions to dark turns never made too garish. It's a wonderful film that deserves a broader audience.

Special features on the DVD include The Hidden Side Of Persepolis, about the tedious process of animation. As can be expected, it makes for a tedious documentary as well, especially the overly long Foley sequence. Apparently, drawings on paper are expensive to animate, and hadn't been done in France for twenty years. I could have sworn there was some bad bits of computer animation at times in the production, but overall the effort paid off. Behind-The-Scenes Of Persepolis is a misnomer, as it's really a brief conversation with the American voice actors. It's fine at less than a third of "Hidden Side's" length. The Canne Press Conference Q & A is another half hour you need not devote to reading, as the film explains itself fine without the effort. The film's the thing, and you'll be well served by watching it alone.

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