Persepolis is adapted from Marjane Satrapi's series of graphic novels, depicting her childhood in Iran during the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and her struggles carving out an identity for herself as a young woman both in her homeland and abroad. The film opens in the late 1970s as Marjane is a wide-eyed child, fascinated by her politically-charged extended family's protests against the oppressive Shah. Life under the Islamic Republic that seizes hold over the country following the revolution would hardly qualify as the victory that Satrapi and her family had hoped for, though. This unwaveringly fundamentalistic regime seeks to crush all perceived threats to its power, ravaging a country simultaneously pitted against the heavy artillery of Iraq.
As Marjane grows into a young woman, her brashness and disinterest in marching in lockstep threaten what tattered shreds of freedom she still has. When sent to live on her own as a student in Vienna, Marjane finds herself at the mercy of not just her outspoken tendencies but the prejudices of a society leery of anyone with any color to her skin. She's not altogether successful at dealing with either threat, and her move to Vienna is followed by several years of failed romances, aimless flitting around, and a downward spiral so degrading that she couldn't bring herself to discuss it with her family after returning to Iran. Fundamentalism has only further entrenched itself, and the near-total dismissal of women in Iran leaves Marjane feeling as out of place in her homeland as she did abroad.
Throughout much of the world, Persepolis was honored not just as one of the year's best animated films but among the most exceptional of any medium, and it is an extraordinary work of art. Its incisive honesty decries the hypocrisy and short-sightedness of mentalities both East and West, and Marjane herself is frequently cast in a not altogether flattering light. This is a coming of age story, and one of the ways in which Marjane truly grows up is by coming to grips with how selfish she can be. Identity, integrity, and the drive to be a part of something are all such universal themes that Persepolis transcends its setting. The movie uses these touchstones in Iran's recent history as a backdrop -- for context -- but Persepolis' message is far more personal than political. Co-directors Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud also deftly interweave the more harrowing moments with an impish charm, and it's a delicate balancing act that's executed brilliantly. Persepolis doesn't wear any blinders as to Marjane's many shortcomings, but that combination of naïveté, mischievousness, and youthful uncertainty shape a remarkably engaging character, and its lighter side never once deflates the tension or drama.
As grounded in reality as Persepolis is, this story would be unrecognizable if translated to live-action. Satrapi and Paronnaud take as full use of the language of the medium as any animated film I've seen. There's a certain amount of exaggeration that adds some additional character -- impossibly beaming smiles, fanged teeth, and the fluidity and flailing of paper doll warring soldiers, for instance -- but it's the dreamlike quality that defines Persepolis' visual style. Silhouettes twist and stretch to ominously engulf the frame. A suicide attempt as Marjane spirals into a deep depression is masterfully suggested through a few simple images that wouldn't have been nearly as effective in live-action. A tremendous amount of thought and effort has clearly been invested into realizing Satrapi's graphic novels as artfully and cinematically as possible, and Persepolis is a testament to the power of animation. As is proudly boasted throughout the disc's extras, the spare character design also contributes to the universal appeal of the story, stripping away ethnicity and making it that much easier for viewers to relate to Marjane.
With as frequently as animation is shrugged off as kiddie fare on these shores, Persepolis is proof positive how adult and artfully crafted a story the medium can offer. Persepolis is a charming, harrowing, and thoroughly engaging work of art, animated or otherwise, and it's a film well worth discovering on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.
Video: Presented almost entirely in black and white, Persepolis draws its clean, deceptively simple visual style from Marjane Satrapi's graphic novels. It's an aesthetic that might not seem as if it cries out for a sparkling high definition presentation, but Persepolis looks gorgeous on Blu-ray. There's such a fine texture to its backgrounds that, along with other occasional intricate details, would've devolved into an indiscernable smear on DVD but are instantly eye-catching in 1080p. The line work is exceptionally crisp throughout, and so much of the storytelling relies on the interplay between swathes of white and deep, inky blacks. That stark contrast is reflected wonderfully on this disc as well, and the 1.78:1, AVC-encoded image remains free of any blooming, compression artifacts, or any discernable flaw at all. Quite simply, Persepolis looks perfect.
Audio: Persepolis includes a pair of lossless TrueHD soundtracks: one in its original French and the second dubbed in English. Even though creator and co-director Marjane Satrapi notes in the disc's extras how she views the English version as an entirely different film rather than merely an alternate soundtrack, I'll admit that my preference is very much in favor of the French audio. The truly exceptional voice work...the cadence...it just feels more comfortable and flows more naturally in French.
Regardless of which language is chosen, Persepolis sounds outstanding. The sound design is extraordinary, from the atmospheric color brimming in the surrounds to the sonic devastation expected from a film set in a country ravaged by war. Sprays of gunfire from every direction, a soundscape peppered with explosions and the rumble of tanks, impassioned riots in the street, the warmth and clarity of the music featured throughout the film, the flawless rendering of the voice acting -- again, every last aspect has been meticulously crafted and emerges with absolute perfection. There isn't a single complaint or concern I have, at least with the technical merits of the audio itself. One misstep is that the subtitles are white against a thin, black border, and that can leave them difficult to make out at times against the black and white imagery. Even a slight tint to the subtitles would've made them much more legible.
There are three subtitle streams in total: traditional English, a second stream geared towards the deaf and hard of hearing, and Spanish.
Extras: The only high definition extras on Persepolis are trailers for a handful of other Sony releases. For whatever reason, a trailer for Persepolis itself has not been included.
The lengthiest of this Blu-ray disc's two making-of featurettes is "The Hidden Side of Persepolis". This half-hour piece -- presented in French and subtitled -- covers virtually every aspect of production in striking detail: every stage of animation, down to line work being meticulously traced with felt-tip pens, compositing and lighting, the recording of the actors, and even the Foley work. "The Hidden Side..." also includes a tour of the animation facility, along with lengthy looks at animatics and Marjane Satrapi miming just about every action by every character, all the way down to a mangy, snaggletoothed dog. Co-directors Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud discuss shaping Persepolis as more than simply a series of moving panels from a graphic novel, delving into its cinematic translation to the screen, the abstract appeal of characters and settings that animation allows, and the film's dreamline, poetic imagery. This is an exceptional featurette, casting an impressively wide net and exploring each facet of the film at length.
The second featurette, "Behind the Scenes of Persepolis" (8 min.), is more of a traditional EPK. There's some discussion about how the film isn't intended to be viewed as a documentary -- that it's not meant to serve as some sort of historical document -- and other comments swirl around the influence of Italian neo-realism and German expressionism on its imagery. Still, its focus is almost entirely on the recording of the English dub and is set predominately in the studio, including looks at Gena Rowlands and Iggy Pop at work. As much as I appreciate peeks at voice actors in the recording studio, "Behind the Scenes..." is one of the blander extras on this Blu-ray disc.
Of much more interest is a half-hour Q&A preceding a screening of the film at the Cannes Film Festival. The predominately French discussion is extremely comprehensive, fielding questions about why this proposal for an adaptation was chosen out of the many Satrapi had received, the reaction to the film in Iran and whether or not it had impacted Satrapi's relationship with her family there, if Satrapi's thoughts were in French or Persian as the story took shape in her mind, and how Persepolis evolved as it was translated from a graphic novel to a more cinematic feature film. Other highlights include nods to influences as disparate as The Night of the Hunter and Maus as well as the complementary personalities of Persepolis' two directors.
Four 'animated scene comparisons' alternate between roughly sketched animatics of unused scenes and the polished footage that made it into the film. This additional footage includes a dreamlike but much more visceral alternate suicide attempt, a snippet of childhood flirting and smoking, and Marjane's parents privately discussing her marriage. Persepolis is better for the approach it eventually took, but it's still intriguing to see what might have been. A series of early animation tests, including various approaches to shadows and lighting, rounds out this eleven minute reel.
Finally, three individual scenes -- running just over six minutes in total -- are accompanied by audio commentary. Marjane Satrapi speaks for three minutes over Persepolis' opening sequence, briefly explaining the framing structure and why the flashbacks that make up the bulk of the film are in black-and-white. Lead voice actress Chiara Mastroianni chats quickly about deliberately singing Survivor's "Eye of the Tiger" off-key as Marjane rebounds from her deep depression. Most of these notes had already been covered in the other extras on the disc, and there's simply not enough time alotted to contribute anything of substance. At least Vincent Paronnaud offers some unique insight as he speaks over an early scene in Vienna, noting the universality of the Iranian setting and how the stretch in Austria is meant to feel as strange and exotic to the audience as it does to the character of Marjane. Paronnaud's minute and a half commentary is the only one in the set to be provided in French and subtitled; the others are natively in English.
Persepolis is a BD-Live enabled disc, although no online features were accessible as of this writing.
Conclusion: Persepolis is exceptional: a beautiful film that takes full advantage of the language of animation to tell a remarkably emotionally resonant story in a way that couldn't possibly be reproduced in live-action. Its presentation on Blu-ray is extraordinary as well, and the only way in which this disc falters is a selection of extras that have a tendency to repeat themselves. While the half-hour making-of featurette and lengthy Q&A are wonderful, Persepolis is a film that demands a lavish special edition, and a more robust set of extras would've easily earned DVD Talk's highest possible rating. Still, Persepolis is such a well-crafted work of art that takes full advantage of its medium that it isn't just the best animated film of 2007 -- it ranks among the best films of the year, period. Very, very Highly Recommended.
The usual image disclaimer: the photos scattered around this review are promotional stills and don't necessarily represent the presentation on this Blu-ray disc.