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Outside the lines

Drawn to Persepolis’ simple imperfections


Film festivals are little Cinderella balls. You spend a week steeped in this intense film energy, making lists, comparing opinions and exchanging recommendations, chatting with fascinating new people, rinsing your mind nightly with gouts of red wine. The multiplex leaves your mind one dumb title at a time until it feels like the movies in the festival are the only ones in the world and you’ve seen them first, movies that will soon be widely and importantly discussed.

But then the clock strikes midnight and everyone goes home. The multiplex beckons. Indie filmmakers feted in the film festival demimonde realize that there’s a difference between film festival glory and commercial success. Some viewers have jotted down notes on things to look out for on DVD; wadded in pockets or polished to a fine sheet from rubbing in a wallet, they will eventually be lost, thrown out with old envelopes, forgotten.

As will be many of the films they’ve seen in the festival. The lion’s share will absolutely not play in the multiplex. Some will be understood by the people of mid-sized inland cities to be great successes in something called “art houses” on either coast, an appellation freighted with images of berets, annoying eyeglasses and Breton fisherman sweaters. Others will enter limited distribution, be passed over at the video store by people looking for “something light,” fall victim to the temporary amnesia that afflicts people ordinarily bulging with mental lists the second they walk into a video store. Foreign titles have it worst of all: There’s evidently a subspecies of human out there—note that I do not say “subhuman”—that prides itself in a disdain for subtitles.

So I’m calling it the Miracle of Belleville, after the French movie that came out a few years ago: the phenomenon of animated foreign-language movies against all odds ending up in the box-store theaters of mid-sized inland cities every three years or so. Regular foreign-languages do so once or twice a year. It would be small and mean indeed to point out to the mangers of these theaters that three weeks of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon do not an “art house” make. If it means more foreign movies, I say they should chase that high.

Persepolis is this year’s Triplets of Belleville, and I mean that in the best way possible: a unique flavor not only of multiplex fare, but of animation period. Based on the four-volume, autobiographical work by co-director Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis stays true to the style of the graphic-novel original in a way that no movie of similar source material has attempted. Well, really, who’s been attempting? Not Richard Rodriguez or Frank Miller. Not Daniel Clowes, who went live-action with his first screen adaptation. Not Terry Zwigoff, despite his obvious affinity for comic book artists. Sorry, “graphic novelists.” (While I’m at it, I have it on comic-book-store-owner authority that the term “sequential art” is the new “graphic novel.”)

Anyway, what a movie. Persepolis tells the story of the Islamic Revolution, its prologue and aftermath through the eyes of a young Teheran girl. We first see Marjane as a nine-year-old tomboy, rambunctious and inquisitive. Her family leads a comfortable, outwardly secular but still religious lifestyle. When anti-Shah protesters take to the streets, Marjane stamps around the living room playacting at being a communist. The political reality of her country takes on a fitful, menacing picture in her mind as relatives are released from prison and tell their tales of horror. All too soon, revolutionary forces are throwing them back in jail again. As the situation deteriorates, Marjane’s family (Mrs. Satrapi is voiced by Catherine Deneuve, a fireplug grandmother by Danielle Darrieux) decides to send her abroad. She eventually makes friends but never gets over feeling adrift, only temporarily in one place.

There’s lots to marvel at with Persepolis: That it’s there, for starters. Its economy in reducing a national tragedy to the story of one girl and her family struggling to get through it. Its leavening of menace with frivolity, most noticeably in a corny self-improvement montage to a poorly karaoked “Eye of the Tiger.” It transitions elegantly between chapters and plotlines, scooping up great screenfuls of beauty.

The art more than anything: even with such a large canvas to play with, these animators really outdid themselves. The work is playful, rich with rough textures and uncluttered lines, packed with self-conscious vamps on its stark black and white palette and visual quotes from Hyakutake to Edvard Munch. It’s digital, but as close to handmade in its look as you’ll find this side of Michel Gondry’s flights of fancy in The Science of Sleep.

These are all things I wish our American CGI jockeys would stop to consider between bites of Lunchables as they strive to create ever more lifelike rubber realities for the likes of Cars and The Incredibles. “Real” is not why I go to the movies, certainly not what I like in animation. Persepolis is, on both counts, and in spades.

Persepolis, alas, ends its six-day run at the Village 6 Thursday, Feb. 28, with shows at 5:35, 7:50 and 10 PM.


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