Tuesday, December 25, 2007

"Persepolis" -- * * * 1/2

A remarkable blending of the political and the personal, "Persepolis" comes off as "The Kite Runner's" cooler, older cousin. Likely to give "Ratatouille" a run for its Best Animated Feature Oscar, it's an alternately touching, funny and sad (but always warm) look at Iran's Islamic Revolution through the eyes of a young girl's coming-of-age. Simultaneously serving as a terrifically faithful adaptation of source material (Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novels) and successfully exploring animation as an expression of ideas unable to be conveyed in live-action, it's a film that's likely to endear itself even to those who aren't familiar with the history behind or have an aversion to unconventional films. Though it will likely need across-the-board raves to get adults to go see a film both animated and subtitled, it's extremely likely to get them, and deservedly so.

Armed with a unique sense of humor and independence of spirit, "Persepolis" always feels like a work of originality from a very specific, independent perspective. In the opening minutes, I was appreciating it more than actually enjoying it, but it doesn't take long to warm up to what it's doing and allow its charms to wash over you. Rather than just a dour child's point-of-view of turbulent times, the film is made up of increasingly personal (and often very funny) vignettes about Marjane's burgeoning sexuality, worldviews and independence. My favorites were her journey to find the latest Iron Maiden album from black-market salesmen on street corners, and a profoundly witty sequence set to "Eye of the Tiger." But the film also does a terrific (if a bit one-sided) job of explaining the political upheaval at the time to those uninitiated, as well as delivering moments of graceful emotion; Marjane's repeated invoking of the memory of her grandmother's bra stuffed with beautiful-smelling jasmine flowers is particularly touching.

The beautifully hand-drawn animation is even more stunning in black-and-white. With more and more films being computer-animated, it's easy to forget that often the simpler the animation style is even more impressive, and the black-and-white also functions as a narrative technique, not just a stylistic decision. The film is framed with in-color sequences of Marjane waiting in an airport, with the middle section serving as a recalled flashback. Aside from numerous sequences that couldn't have feasibly been done in live action, the animation adds a sense of whimsy to the proceedings and feels tonally in line with the content of the story, even in its most somber moments.

A work of startling vitality and complexity that I'm having difficult processing in an articulate manner, "Persepolis" is a 90-minute breath of fresh air that captures a very specific time in history as well as what its like to hopelessly attempt to adapt your identity and social scenes (Marjane falls in with punks and hippies amongst others). Either one of these stories would have made for a fascinating film, so the two together is doubly so. I really don't know if something this warm, accessible and relatable can be dubbed "adventurous cinema" but there's so much here that's different than what we're getting from really any other film as of late, that one could be forgiven for the labeling. "Persepolis" is a film that genuinely caught me off-guard, but it had me by the time Marjane reveals her affinity for Bruce Lee and Godzilla movies. Working on numerous levels, it's the rare movie that appeals so completely to the heart and the head.

"Persepolis" opens today in seven theaters in Los Angeles (5) and New York (2), and the only expansion date I can locate is January 18th.

OSCAR POTENTIAL: Best Animated Feature looks the most likely, but could also pop up in Best Foreign Language Film and Best Adapted Screenplay


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