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Persepolis

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*Persepolis (PG-13)

Kimball's Twin Peak
Iran. To American minds, that name conjures up images of stern, bearded mullahs and women cloaked in black from head to toe images of oppression and tyranny and denial. So it may astonish some Americans to discover that as recently as the 1970s, the Persian nation was open and free and not so very alien to Western eyes.

Such imagery of 9-year-old Marjane, who lives in Tehran and likes heavy metal music and giggles like any schoolgirl you've ever known is startling, in an eye-opening way, though it shouldn't be. Kids are kids the world over.

Few, however, are forced to confront the larger cultural significance of their rebellion as is cheeky Marjane while the bleak shroud of the 1978-79 Islamic Revolution settles heavily around her. And yet, somehow Persepolis the movie doesn't quite soar like Persepolis the astonishing graphic novel upon which it's based.

Yes, this movie has been nominated for an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film. It won a special jury prize at Cannes. It is one of the most acclaimed films of 2007, with kudos from a wide spectrum of critics' organizations and film festivals. It is one of the most striking animated movies ever made. It is a very fine film indeed. So how tough it is to acknowledge that a film can be very fine indeed and still disappoint.

There is no question that the animation style of this French production is unlike anything we've ever seen before. It apes the look of Marjane Satrapi's graphic novel of the same name, with its scratchboard vitality and black-and-white insistence.

Satrapi, working with French comic artist Vincent Paronnaud (both making their feature-film debuts), tells the true story of her childhood in Iran before and during the Islamic revolution. She shows how her girlish vivacity, fueled by Western rock music and teenage fantasies of the wider world, slowly gets crushed under the tyrannical thumb of religious oppression. It probably doesn't help that her parents are vocal progressives and communists, and hence are targets for the newly powerful mullahs.

Small details about secret parties and illegal alcohol and other furtive defiance of the oppressive rule of the mullahs build to a larger, poignant story about overcoming fear and learning to cope with it when everything spirals out of control.

Discovering something new about a place so frequently featured in the most terrifying headlines putting faces, even animated faces, to a people is wonderful. Yet it is hard to connect with the young heroine, even though she is autobiographical for the filmmaker and the film is about the universality of childhood experiences in the modern world. Something has been lost in the translation from page to screen.

There is power here in the film as a cautionary tale about how fast tyranny can fall. It echoes aspects of our American culture that seem to be falling into a downward spiral of repression and thwarted civil liberties. Unfortunately, as a coming-of-age tale of a girlhood lost too soon, it leaves us wanting, just a little more.

scene@csindy.com

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