It's not every animated feature that borrows its title from a now-vanished seat of ancient culture or that takes political and religious oppression as its subject. Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's French-language "Persepolis," however, is refreshingly unlike the noisy, computer-generated amusements we're told represent a new golden age in animation. Based on Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novels, very popular in her adopted home of France, "Persepolis" traces a tumultuous decade and a half in revolutionary Iran as seen through the eyes of a spirited girl. Strikingly animated in stark, clean-lined black-and-white, "Persepolis" cuts through the usual media images of Iran to show us decent middle-class family life under threat from aspiring purifiers with guns and government on their side. As a reminder that Iran is a complex society with a long tradition of cosmopolitan interchange with the West, "Persepolis" could hardly be more welcome. As a narrative, however, the film sometimes loses its way. Never less than engaging, it is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.
The story begins in 1978, in the Tehran home of the Satrapi family, where rambunctious little Marji (voiced by Chiara Mastroianni), about 7 years old, is alternately reined in and indulged by a loving family. The Satrapi clan is educated, secular to its fingertips, presided over by a slightly irreverent grandmother and counts among its members an outspoken communist. They seem, in short, very French (an impression strengthened by Catherine Deneuve's voicing the role of Marji's mother). Thrilled at the collapse of the Shah of Iran's power, they are terrified by the rise of a fundamentalist regime in their midst. Their misery is made complete when Saddam Hussein declares war on the new Islamic republic, raining bombs on their neighborhood and giving the insecure government an excuse to clamp down further on its own people.
Given this grim background, it's amazing that "Persepolis" manages to present so much charming anecdotal evidence that wit, spontaneity and energetic unruliness -- not to mention rock 'n' roll did not perish in Iran with the revolution. In one winning scene, Marji, wearing a sweatshirt declaring, "Punk is not ded," haggles with seedy black-marketeers over the price of a bootleg Iron Maiden recording. Instantly, however, she is set upon by two stern, black-robed protectors of the faith, women who tower over her like serpents preparing to strike. It's a pattern that appears again and again. Every step Marji takes toward Western music, socialism, alcohol, feminism, romance is met by barking recriminations or, worse still, threats of flogging and imprisonment.
It's probably a good thing that "Persepolis" does not involve itself with the leadership of the revolution, its theology or its politics. (If the name Khomeini is uttered, I must have missed it.) Instead, it focuses on the revolution as it presented itself from day to day, mainly through uniformed young men who, instead of languishing without employment, are given leave to ride around in jeeps and rough up the impure, and who do so with gusto. As far as the film is concerned, these were the real winners in the revolutionary struggle.
As writers of biographies know, it's very difficult to impose a coherent narrative arc on a typical person's life, what with its indirection, exciting beginnings that lead nowhere and intermittent languors. And Marji, whose story closely follows that of her real-life creator, does not, alas, lead a life that gels naturally into dramatic form.
After a riveting first section in Tehran, the action shifts to Vienna, where Marji is sent by her parents to escape what is happening in her homeland. She falls in with a band of wealthy teens whose second-hand nihilism comes off as the unsatisfactory antithesis of the religious fervor she left behind. At home neither in the secular, frivolous West nor in the holy furor at home, she drifts in and out of love affairs, depression and intellectual fads, ending up back in Iran, where the curtailment of rights has at least assumed an air of normalcy and predictability.
Marji is cursed to live in interesting times, and her story is never without interest. Americans, in keeping with their custom regarding places far away, know very little of Iran, and "Persepolis" may be the first step many take in remedying that deficiency. That's a good thing, surely, but not enough to give shape to this meandering, visually arresting picture. (PG-13) 95 min. S