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PERSEPOLIS
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices:  Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Simon Abkarian, Danielle Darrieux, Francois Jerosme
Directors:  Marjane Satrapi, Vincent Paronnaud
Audio:  Dolby TrueHD 5.1 (English and French)
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Sony
Features:  See Review
Length:  95 Minutes
Release Date:  June 24, 2008

“Never forget who you are…or where you came from.”

Film ***

I think I’m about the same age as Marjane Satrapi, on whose life and graphic novels creates the basis for her co-directed animated film Persepolis.  I can remember many of the major events in the story…ones that she experienced first-hand, but ones I encountered safely from a distance on my television.  Her tale chronicles some thirty-plus years of strife and turmoil in her homeland of Iran; events that might have seemed isolated but instead had global impact, and continues to do so to this day.

Animation was a praiseworthy choice for the material, as the whole movie feels like a crude graphic novel come to life.  Instead of embracing the realism of CGI, the filmmakers instead chose a fanciful 2D traditional form, black and white, and the result looks like pages from a student’s sketchbook.  That’s not a complaint; the unique visual style is perhaps the movie’s best attribute.

It’s a tale filled with emotion and humor, but curiously, also a bit alienating.  It opted for a more personal style…after all, this really is Ms. Satrapi’s story, and as such, it left most of the political and religious upheaval mostly in the background.  Her and her family’s experiences seem more like a dream than the brutal reality we all know it was and still is.

As a child, the Shah was being overthrown (we see the history of the Shah in stick puppet form).  Many, including her uncle Anouche (Jerosme), dreamed of a brighter, freer future, but the takeover by fundamental extremists would lead to a harsher existence than any known under the royal family.  Marjane laughs and plays and hears occasional stories about the turmoil of her nation, including the eventual imprisonment and execution of her beloved uncle.

As the long lasting and terrible war with Iraq descended, Marjane is sent to Vienna by her parents, where she embraces art and counter-culture with bohemian friends.  She moves around a lot, is sometimes homeless, and eventually comes to realize that Iran is where she belongs, despite the terrors there.

When she returns, the war has ended, but life is worse than ever.  As the zealots tighten their grip, freedom has all but disappeared.  A woman doesn’t dare be seen without her veil, and God forbid you have so much as a bottle of wine in your house.

The movie relays terrible events with a certain humor and aloofness…it tries to see cataclysmic events through the eyes of a child, who is more interested in smuggled tapes of the Bee Gees or Iron Maiden and trying to rebel in small ways.  It’s been compared to Juno in that regard, but instead of pregnancy, we get relationships and a marriage that are disastrous, but amusingly told with Marjane’s own distinct spin.

It feels like an emotional film, and there are moments that will touch your heart, but the structure and style seems to deliberately keep the audience at a distance…it’s as though the film tried to stay personal to the point that we become intruders instead of spectators.  Satrapi has an amazing story to tell, but I rarely felt like I was a welcome witness to the proceedings.

The modern Iranians are more culturally unified than Iraq, and they seem more spirited and more in tune with Western ideals than their other Middle Eastern brethren.  Today, they are caught in the middle, as their madman leader pursues nuclear weapons, threatens to erase Israel, and even tells the prime minister of Japan to prepare for a world without the United States. 

Marjane’s story seems like so much prologue, and the final chapter has yet to be written.  Who knows what the future will hold…one can only hope when it all comes down, there will be a child as astute, defiant and creative as Marjane to preserve the memory for those who one day have a chance to look back on it all.

Video ****

If the visual style is the film’s strong point, it renders beautifully in HD.  This is my first black and white Blu-ray (with a touch of color here and there), and I’m quite impressed.  You’ve never seen how striking black and white contrast can be until you’ve seen it on Blu-ray…deep blacks, crystal clear whites, and solid grayscales all the way through.  It’s very clean, very crisp and very lively from start to finish.

Audio ***

You can choose the original French or English in TrueHD, and both sound good…the English track features voiceovers from Sean Penn, Iggy Pop and others.  There are a few big scenes, but the audio really shines through in the more ambient moments, as when loudspeaker voices come from the rear, or echoes seem to go in all directions.  Dynamic range is fairly strong, and dialogue in either language is clean and clear.

Features ***

The extras include a pair of featurettes on the film, which feature the real Marjane Satrapi, animated scene comparisons and select scene commentary with Satrapi, the 2007 Cannes Film Festival press conference, and some previews.

Summary:

Persepolis is a striking animated effort, chronicling an important and still-relevant piece of history in a personal way that should have felt more intimate.  I felt a bit shut-out by the stylistic choices, but I still felt the intended emotion…just from a distance.

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