"Nothing is more universal than one human being," Iranian-born-and-raised Marjane Satrapi has said, and she certainly proves that in Persepolis, her largely autobiographical account of having come of age during a particularly turbulent period in Iran's history. The fall of the shah, the rise of the mullahs, the war with Iraq - Satrapi was groping toward adulthood as these events were playing themselves out. The movie can make your head spin, so quickly does it go from, say, Satrapi impersonating her childhood idol, Bruce Lee, to a friend of the family being stood in front of a wall and shot by a firing squad.
Did I mention that the movie's animated? Drawn from Satrapi's celebrated comic books, it preserves the graphic simplicity - the world reduced to black-and-white lines and shapes - of Satrapi's drawings while adding movement and sound. And most important, it preserves the feeling of a children's story told by a child. When we first meet her, Marjane is a little girl whose head is filled with ideas about the way the world works. And her lefty-intellectual parents are mildly shocked when she voices approval of the shah, having been sufficiently indoctrinated at school. But everyone's about to be swept up in events they can't control.
They're events that Persepolis has a little trouble controlling, the comic books having done a better job of keeping Marjane front and center. But the peek we get inside the Islamic revolution as it boils over, thickens and hardens is something we Americans weren't shown on the nightly news. The movie never mentions the Iranian hostage crisis, which seems a little strange, but the image it left us with was of a country entirely given over to religious fanaticism. Obviously, that was the prevailing mood, but Satrapi shows us the pockets, even the pools, of resistance. Even Marjane herself is finally sent off to boarding school in Vienna by her parents, who fear her teenage rebellion will land her in prison.
And it might well have, considering that you could be arrested for playing cards. Using imagery that evokes the inky blots of a woodcut, Satrapi and her co-director, France's Vincent Paronnaud, show the black veil that descended over Iran. In fact, in one shot the chadors worn by a group of schoolgirls converge into a dark background out of which an anonymous mass of faces tells us all we need to know about the freedom of the individual in a theocratic state. "The veil stands for freedom," one of Marjane's teachers says, a classic bit of Orwellian double-speak. But if Persepolis proves anything, it's that there's something going on behind those veils, something that, if ever set loose, could start another revolution.