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Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2008

Iranian Odyssey

A woman’s graphic story

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If the Shah of Iran ever enjoyed popular support, it had evaporated across large stretches of the population by the time of his overthrow in 1979. But what followed after a short, disorderly and heady intermezzo was a symphony of horror darker than any the Shah could have composed.

Marjane Satrapi was just a girl when the Shah fled, but she seems to have forgotten little. Her acclaimed autobiographical graphic novel, Persepolis, is the basis for her directorial debut of the same name. Filmed in France with English subtitles, it is animated in a stark style resembling the novel’s imagery. Persepolis has been justly nominated for an Academy Award. It may not defeat Ratatouille for Best Animated Film, but it is one of the most intriguing movies of its kind in many years.

Sidestepping the colorful kineticism of much contemporary cartooning, Persepolis is executed largely in lustrous black and white, with judicious dabs of color to brighten scenes set in the present. The form of the human characters is simple but expressive, with thin lines for mouths, eyes of dotted ovals and wedges for noses. The drawings themselves blend many influences: Persian miniatures and Arabic calligraphy are hinted in the elegant swirls; the silhouettes and deep shadows speak in German Expressionism; the heavily wooded forest of images in some scenes suggests Art Nouveau.

Many names and events from Iran most familiar to Americans are omitted. Ayatollah Khomeini and the seizure of the U.S. embassy go unmentioned. What left a greater impression on Satrapi was the rapid narrowing of personal expression under the fundamentalist Islamic regime and the bloody war Iran fought to stave off an invasion by Saddam Hussein.

Women were forced to dress concealingly and were hounded by misogyny; makeup, playing cards and pop music were banned; and possession of alcohol became a serious offense. The war with

Iraq claimed tens of thousands of lives and brought air raids to Tehran. In one scene, Marjane’s mouth is frozen in the gaping horror of Munch’sThe Scream. During an initial phase of European exile, the high-school-aged protagonist immersed herself in what she calls “the concept of forced nihilism” fashionable in Western youth culture, with its increasingly cliched punk rock, mindless embrace of ’60s hippie nostalgia and shallow political rhetoric. She returns to Iran but, aside from the comfort of family, finds her once flourishing homeland has been reduced to a cemetery of narrow minds and fear. For Satrapi, integrity is hard to find anywhere on Earth. Humorous, sad and ultimately bittersweet, Persepolis is the result of her successful quest to transform her life into a work of artistic integrity.