Thanks to Pixar studios, today's animated films usually have more sophisticated stories and snappier dialogue than their live-action counterparts, but those stories are still almost exclusively aimed at children, and the dialogue is nearly always spoken by furry animals. Persepolis is something different. A French cartoon co-written and directed by Marjane Satrapi, it's based on her set of four hugely acclaimed graphic novellas about her upbringing in Iran before she moved to Paris in the 1990s. There isn't a talking animal in sight.
The film is being shown in the UK in two versions: one has French dialogue with English subtitles, the other is dubbed into English by Sean Penn, Iggy Pop and others.
It begins in 1978, when Marji, as she's known, is a young girl living in a flat in Tehran with her middle-class parents. Her three main preoccupations are Bruce Lee, chips with ketchup, and Adidas trainers, but then, with the fall of the Shah, she starts hearing about her country's history and politics, and she meets an uncle who's been in prison for years.
"From here on out, things can only improve," he says. But the world soon sees, not for the last time, that when a secular autocrat is deposed, he's not necessarily replaced by a Western-friendly democratic government. Her uncle is soon back in prison, headscarves are mandatory, bearded men with rifles patrol the streets, and Marji has to buy her Iron Maiden albums on the black market. Eventually her parents send her to school in Austria, where she learns that being far away from war and repression doesn't always compensate for being far away from home.
In someone else's hands, it could be a dry, depressing lecture, but in Satrapi's it's mischievous, revealing, very sad, and often very funny. Events are filtered through the attitude of its rebellious heroine, as she grows from a curious child who plays at torturers and martyrs in the playground to a cynical woman who has to contend with art-school life-drawing classes in which the model is covered from head to foot in a burkha.
Like most films that flit across a decade and a half in an hour and a half, Persepolis is a fragmentary series of vignettes, but overall it's a unique delight. It's also a salient reminder that any country, whether or not it's on a so-called axis of evil, has citizens who would reject totalitarianism, or even just wear jackets with "Punk Is Not Ded" emblazoned on the back, if they weren't risking their lives by doing so.
Although the playful visuals are a little slicker than Satrapi's original cartoons, Persepolis retains their two-dimensional, black-and-white style , which is quite a relief at a time when Hollywood animation strives for nothing more than to resemble live-action film. A cartoon by and about an Iranian is one thing. But a cartoon that doesn't try to look as if was made by Pixar – now that's radical.