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Originally published January 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 25, 2008 at 9:46 AM

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Movie review

"Persepolis" an animated masterpiece

Animated features that have nothing to do with talking animals, ogres or machines with personalities are rare enough. An animated feature that...

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3.5 stars

"Persepolis," with the voices of Chiara Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux, François Jerosme, Gabrielle Lopes, Simon Abkarian. Written and directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, based on a graphic novel by Satrapi. 95 minutes. Rated PG-13 for mild violence and sexuality. In French with English subtitles. Harvard Exit.

Animated features that have nothing to do with talking animals, ogres or machines with personalities are rare enough. An animated feature that offers an autobiographical perspective on one of the most controversial nations in the world today is nothing short of remarkable.

That's precisely what "Persepolis" is: a modern history of Iran, told from the point of view of a woman whose life bridges the pre-revolutionary era of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the post-revolutionary world of ruling mullahs.

Based on a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, and co-directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, "Persepolis" is a monochromatic vision of one person's restless and feminist spirit trying to survive the sociocultural restrictions of a new Iran born during the Islamic Revolution of the late 1970s. The film's hand-drawn animation technique employs deep-black and chalk-white tones, with gray touches and a splash of color at a strategic point in the story, yet never becomes visually tedious.

If anything, the tonal simplicity of the film lends itself to graphic wit, a rich array of emotional experience and an austere impression of Iran as a place where ordinary fun, as Satrapi remembers it, could get a young person in trouble. Satrapi, based on her storytelling, is hardly awash in self-pity or old resentments. Even her recreations of particularly harrowing moments — after Islamic fundamentalism takes hold of most facets of existence — have a touch of grace and even humor to take the edge off of shrillness.

Little Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes) belongs to a family of intellectuals who oppose the Pahlavi dynasty and are no strangers to imprisonment and torture under the shah. The ebullient girl is primarily interested in Bruce Lee movies, but she's also energized by a feeling of change in the air, manifested in street demonstrations and family gatherings in which the sole topic is revolution.

From the start, Satrapi's wry observations warm up this tale of epochal developments. She notes how, with the shah on the ropes, relatives who had never been arrested suddenly claim to have been abused in the name of the people. But she also recalls her Uncle Anoush (François Jerosme), whom she meets only briefly and lovingly between his long imprisonment under the shah and his execution under Ayatollah Khomeini.

Most of "Persepolis" focuses on Marjane's teens and early adulthood, a period in which her naturally rebellious personality chafes against official expectations of women and finds no relief in marriage. Chiara Mastroianni voices this older Marjane, who, like most people, tries on new experiences to see what feels right, except that she does so in an atmosphere of intense scrutiny.

One of the most interesting passages in "Persepolis" finds Marjane sent to live in Austria by her concerned parents (Simon Abkarian as her dad; Catherine Deneuve, Mastroianni's real-life mother, as Marjane's mom). There, she experiments with punk culture and a few other things, and finds that freedom doesn't automatically lead to fulfillment.

One of the great pleasures of "Persepolis" (which received an Oscar nomination for best animation feature) is the casting of 90-year-old French actress Danielle Darrieux as Marjane's grandmother, a touchstone of honesty and strength who helps keep Marjane true to herself. Darrieux's legendary status in world cinema gives her character a special cachet, making an already soulful movie that much more memorable.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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