IMDB says... Poignant coming-of-age story of a precocious and outspoken young Iranian girl that begins during the Islamic Revolution.
The 73rd Virgin says... Re-watching Argo set me to thinking about this great story, oddly animated in black and white, which began as Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel. The book and the movie are in French, although Satrapi apparently speaks English and, I assume, Farsi from her native Iran. It is also dubbed into English but uses at least two of the same French actresses, Catherine Deneuve and her daughter Chiara Mastroianni, for both versions.
“Marji” is an only child and is doted upon by her parents and her beloved profane grandma. They are upscale left-wing modern intellectuals living under the Shah’s regime in pre-revolution Iran. She is smart, willful and probably spoiled, but since she is immersed in her parents’ world she observes mostly adult behavior from an early age. The movie is very good at showing her bewildered reaction to the combination of well-heeled partying and paranoid fear of everyday adult life. Her late grandfather was long ago imprisoned by the Shah.
Despite the animation this is one of the most convincing portrayals of what amounts to normal life under an abnormally repressive regime. Without preaching of any kind it shows how conveniently anyone with a comfortable lifestyle can adapt to and accommodate repression. These are not unhappy people; it just seems that every adult has a family member or friend who is in prison starving or being tortured with a hoped-for release date at some point in the middle future. They keep track of each other’s detainees like westerners keep track of the neighbor’s kid in college.
Marji becomes enthralled with her charming uncle Anoush, a communist dissident just released from the Shah’s prisons. Everyone hopes for the revolution and when it finally comes in 1979 they are giddy with excitement.
With great story-telling economy, the movie tracks Iran’s descent into murderous theocracy through the eyes of Marji’s frightened and panicky relatives. After all the purges and executions, Saddam’s Iraq senses weakness and begins a war in 1980 that would kill at least one million soldiers before ending in 1988. Again, with great economy, we are shown the human waves of untrained boys being exterminated on the front lines.
So all the above might make you think that you’re watching Z or All Quiet on The Western Front as a cartoon, but the brilliant observational humor and voice acting, and the freedom afforded by animation, give this a remarkably wide dynamic range. Several scenes are wildly funny and warm, juxtaposed with a litany of executions, historical voice-over and moving scenes of familial dissolution.
Eventually Marji infuriates her chadored teachers once too often and her fearful parents pack her off to Vienna at about age 14 to live with a family friend.
The friend turns out to be unreliable, so Marji bounces from a Catholic convent to being the tenant of a deranged retired PhD to an endless string of temporary addresses, all the while becoming more European and disengaged from her roots.
What begins with harmless disaffection and mild nihilism eventually descends into homelessness with unclear intimations of prostitution or maybe sexual assault. After landing in the hospital with pneumonia she calls her parents and asks to come home on the agreement that they ask no questions. So she returns to her war-torn and paranoid homeland and takes the veil.
But even now with depression, pill-heavy therapy and a suicide attempt the movie is very funny and closely observed. Here, God and Karl Marx send her back to life and a musical montage. Later in art class they will study a Botticelli with all the naughty bits blacked out, and will sketch the female form from a model who appears to be wearing a black tent.
Eventually she will marry, continue attending carefully hidden alcoholic parties, and observe more horror. The ending winds down to her adult realization that she will always come from Iran, but probably can’t be Iranian. It is not overly hopeful.
The real Marji as shown in the special features documentaries is a robust, 40-ish, chain-smoking Perso-European good ol’ girl, always in a dress a couple sizes too small, who speaks rapidly and bursts with good humor. She is shown acting out all the parts for the benefit of voice actors and animators with outrageous physical humor and facial expressions.
At only 96 minutes, this seems much longer than it is; not because of boredom, but because of the richness and variety of the story. It lost to Ratatouille as Best Animated Picture of 2007. Ratatouille was great, but this is a masterpiece for the ages, animated or not.