If we’ve learned anything in the past five or so years of our foreign policy, it’s that we should know a few things about a country — its history, people, culture, and religion — before bombing the crap out of it. Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation (with Vincent Paronnaud) of her series of graphic novels about growing up in Tehran under the shah and the ayatollah provides just such a public service. It reminds us that Iranians too are people and not just potential collateral damage in yet another pre-emptive strike. But it’s also an irresistible and extraordinary feat of animation, a coming-of-age classic masterfully told and emblazoned with an allusive, antic, eloquent visual style.
The latter comes directly from the source, a chiaroscuro cartoon memoir influenced, Satrapi claims, by German Expressionism and Italian Neo-Realism — in short, half the history of cinema. True, many of her images, as brought to life in the film, are as haunting and grotesque as a set design from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and as authentic and commonplace as a street scene in The Bicycle Thief. But the gallows humor and the puckish irony remind me more of the graphic work of Edward Gorey and the animation films of Tim Burton. Like that pair, Satrapi evokes a world of inky voids and menacing specters that are nonetheless at the mercy of an impish and innocent imagination. Thus, even when the film taps into matters that are truly nightmarish and awful, a kind of Grand Guignol mirth abides.
And there’s no shortage of darkness to challenge the film’s mercurial spirit. First comes the shah, during whose reign uncles and grandparents and family friends who oppose the dictatorship suffer imprisonment, torture, and execution. All of which seems a walk in the park next to the theocratic tyranny of the ayatollah, which brings not only more of the same but also religious fanaticism and a nine-year war with Iraq that claims a million lives.
Compared with these historical tragedies, Satrapi’s own woes as an expatriate student in Vienna — during which time she suffers prejudice, struggles with her identity, falls in love, and gets depressed — seem a little trivial. But unlike, say, the contemptible and charmless hero of The Kite Runner, she’s fiery, frustrating, resourceful, dumb, funny, self-pitying, and self-sacrificing. Voiced by Chiara Mastroianni (whose real-life mother, Catherine Deneuve, voices Satrapi’s mother), she’s the ideal, empathetic guide to such alien circumstances.
And her story is a familiar one: a young girl seduced by another culture, the West, who loses touch with her true identity — here embodied by her irrepressible grandmother (Danielle Darrieux). Eventually, disillusioned with the superficial paradise she was drawn toward, she returns to her roots and becomes a wiser and more complete person.
That’s right — it’s the Iranian version of The Devil Wears Prada and The Nanny Diaries. Or, given the film’s occasional switches from monochrome to color, The Wizard of Oz. Marjane learns that there’s no place like home. And we Americans watching realize that people have homes even in the heart of the Axis of Evil.