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Persepolis is confidently cosmopolitan in its outlook and resonances; Allen's creativity seems inexhaustible, and the modest, unprepossessing Cassandra's Dream strikes me as one of his best

An Iranian coming-of-age tale in Persepolis 

Plus: Woody Allen's fine new film, Cassandra's Dream

click to enlarge Marjane runs afoul of Islamic correctness in Persepolis. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Given that the animated feature Persepolis, based on Marjane Satrapi's acclaimed graphic novels of that title, depicts an Iranian girl's coming of age from the Iranian Revolution in the late '70s to the restrictive culture of the Islamic Republic in the early '90s, it might be expected to suggest various parallels to Iran's recent cinematic efflorescence.

But the mostly black-and-white French production, co-directed by Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, reminds me more of various non-Iranian works, ranging from the current indie hit Juno (for the insouciant central girl) to the novels of Dickens (for the sweep of incident and social observation) to certain French New Wave films including Francois Truffaut's The 400 Blows (for the narrative concision and mix of autobiographical affection and bitterness, hilarity and sorrow).

That's one way of saying that Persepolis is confidently cosmopolitan in its outlook and resonances. Yet it's also an indirect reminder that Iranian culture has been strangely (and, one might add, tragically) bifurcated for going on three decades now, and the West, while being consistently more fascinated with Iran than many Americans perhaps recognize or care to admit, has experienced that culture from one of two very distinct angles: rooted Iranian culture that is exported from the Islamic Republic, and Iranian expatriate culture. From the mid-'90s, when the films of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi and their fellows began catching fire internationally, Iran's export culture has been dominant. Expatriate cultural expressions, meanwhile, have been slower to grab the world's attention, yet they now enjoy their own special cachet, thanks in large part to the creations of three renowned Iranian-born females: writer Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran), artist-filmmaker Shirin Neshat and artist-writer (and now filmmaker) Satrapi.

In retrospect, the West's embrace of Islamic Republic filmmakers reflected amazement at their clever evasions of countless content restrictions as well as a sense that they were giving us the "real" Iran, a pure dose of Persian culture. The expats had to deal with the cultural equivalent of survivors' guilt, along with suspicions—their own included, no doubt—that their artistic visions had been adulterated, diluted, tainted by life abroad.

As it happened, though, the creations of both groups were fundamentally cross-cultural, enough so to suggest that the essential Iranian genius may be for hybrid rather than "pure" forms (Herodotus noted the Persian knack for cultural borrowing 2,300 years ago). While those indigenous filmmakers poured new wine into bottles created by everyone from Godard to Spielberg, their expat sisters used Western forms, freedoms and forums to stake their own claim to giving us the "real" Iran.

In the case of Persepolis, that claim is delightfully, impressively persuasive. If the characteristic failing of expat art is to sacrifice equanimity to polemical excess, Satrapi offers an account of one girl's life amid massive political upheaval that's remarkably clear-eyed and non-argumentative. In fact, this adroit cartoon chronicle points up exactly how circumscribed artists working in Iran have been, because it gives us a disarmingly straightforward depiction of many aspects of Iranian experience they are forbidden to deal with—everything from the historical (notably the Iranian Revolution, a subject that Iranian films rarely touch) to the quotidian (e.g., at home many Iranians drink alcohol and argue politics and women shed their hijab).

Framed by brief episodes in Paris, where Satrapi now lives, Persepolis' autobiographical fiction locates three stages of young Marjane's life in three distinct historical and cultural situations. Childhood transpires during the tumultuous period when the overthrow of the Shah leads to the establishment of a rigid theocracy, which is soon embroiled in a horrific war with Iraq. Adolescence, in the mid-'80s, finds our heroine living on her own in Vienna, perplexed not only by young love but also by the West's freedoms and her Iranian identity. As a young adult, she's back in Iran, dealing with the consequences of romantic disillusionment and the country's postwar discontents.

When she's living in Vienna, her punk friends marvel, "Wow, you lived through a revolution and a war." That extraordinary set of experiences does indeed form the story's cornerstone. As a kid in a solid middle-class Tehran family, little "Marji" of course doesn't grasp the political import of the dramas enveloping the adults around her. One day she loves the Shah because, she says, he was appointed by God—a statement that dumbfounds her liberal parents—but then, after the city's boulevards overflow with demonstrators demanding the regime's overthrow, she's marching around the apartment, swathed in a militant headband, chanting, "Down with the Shah!"

One touch that will surely bring a smile to Iranian viewers is that Marji imagines she's destined to become "the last prophet of the galaxy." She talks with both God and Karl Marx—thanks to the advantages of animation, both are depicted in simple strokes as old men with fluffy white beards sitting atop fluffy white clouds—and she forms something of a crush on her handsome Communist uncle Anoush, who is persecuted under the monarchist regime, then tortured and executed by its Islamic successor.

Naturally, both the child's viewpoint and the nature of this type of fiction disallow detailed analyses or explanations of the events witnessed, as when the spell of liberty and euphoria following the Shah's overthrow gives way to mass executions and arrests, the imposition of Islamic correctness and a terrible war. Yet Persepolis does us the great service of letting us know what it felt like to live through such times, testimony built of scores of incidental details: the black veils imposed on women, the changed cityscape due to wartime bombings, the baby-faced soldiers assigned to police public morals. (One detail that's missing, rather surprisingly, is the ubiquitous granite visage of the Ayatollah Khomeini.)

After I started visiting Iran in the '90s, one thing I found hard to explain to people back home was that where you would expect to find fear produced by authoritarian rule, you instead found defiance—much of it quite gleeful and personal. That's a constant feature both of Marjane's Iran and the girl herself, whose rebellions range from rocking out to Iron Maiden to wearing makeup to making outrageous retorts to Islamic teachers and authorities.

Part of what makes this so convincing and engaging is that it's not only a cultural portrait, but also an intimate journey—a tale of character formation and its trials—that could belong to any culture. Marjane's closest relationship is with her crusty, candid grandmother, who urges her to retain her own dignity and later rebukes her sharply when she thoughtlessly tramples on a stranger's. Here, virtue isn't the automatic property of the main character; it must be learned and earned—a lesson similar to those Marjane discovers in sampling the West's hedonism and nihilism, which seem so liberating at first, yet end up feeling even more hollow than Islamic orthodoxy.

A trans-cultural tale in this wisest, most eye-opening sense, Persepolis bothered me only for being released in the U.S. in French (with voices by Gallic stars including Catherine Deneuve, Danielle Darrieux and Chiara Mastroianni), when, as an animated film, it could easily have been dubbed in English or Farsi. This odd tic aside, it is an extraordinarily original and captivating film—one that continues the valuable work begun by the Iranian cinema of exploding our parochial and politically blinkered views of Iran, showing us a country not of slogans and sound bites but of real people facing problems and challenges no less complex than our own.

Persepolis opens Friday in select theaters.


click to enlarge Before the devil knows they're dead: Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell in Cassandra's Dream - PHOTO BY KEITH HAMSHERE/ THE WEINSTEIN COMPANY

In recent years Woody Allen, erstwhile superstar auteur, has too often either been dismissed or ignored, and, alas, his still-prodigious output has included enough clunkers to justify the scornful yawns of his detractors. But Allen's creativity seems inexhaustible, and the modest, unprepossessing Cassandra's Dream, his latest, strikes me as one of his best, on two grounds.

First, as a de facto companion piece to 2005's Match Point, this tale of crime among young, social-climbing Englishmen is not just an audacious leap into another culture for Allen, it also produces that genuine rarity—a modern equivalent of a classic film noir, complete with a plot that slowly encircles its protagonists like a tightening noose.

Of course, audiences today know beans about classic noir. They expect any drama hinging on crime to deal in suspense, action and mayhem, not methodical parables about the poker-faced workings of fate. In Cassandra's Dream, Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell (both of whom are excellent) play working-class London brothers drawn haphazardly toward crime by a taste for life's finer things.

A standard premise, perhaps. But consider Allen's strategy: Every major event, from a big loss at a gambling table to a murder, happens off camera. Even compared to a relatively thrill-less Hollywood drama like Michael Clayton, this approach seems as chaste as Sophocles or Bresson. And yet it's light-handed too, never showy or self-congratulatory.

The film's second, and by far most intriguing, virtue is that it offers what I think is Allen's first wholly convincing theological exploration. Following his idol Ingmar Bergman in self-conscious, overly determined films like Crimes and Misdemeanors, he has made a show of invoking the question of God without saying much about it.

Cassandra's Dream is more penetrating and original, in part because it's happy to be seen as nothing more than noir-ish crime drama. But as Allen craftily works out the fates of his two protagonists, he also seems intent on proving that God's presence in the world can be glimpsed in phenomena available to everyone—conscience and human morality.

This is a striking assertion, and whether you buy or not, one thing seems inarguable: It's a theme that Allen has been drawn to from the first, and will surely return to again.

Cassandra's Dream is now playing in select theaters.

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