A wonderful spirit—defiant, funny, tender, self-mocking—suffuses "Persepolis," the entrancing animated film that Marjane Satrapi and codirector Vincent Paronnaud have made from Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novels. "Persepolis" isn't like any animated film you've ever seen. Hand-drawn in bold black-and-white images (with a splash of color here and there), it takes us on a very personal journey through the political upheavals of modern Iran. Marjane (voiced by Gabrielle Lopes as a child and Chiara Mastroianni as a teenager and adult) is a Bruce-Lee-loving 9-year-old when the story starts in 1978, just as the shah is about to be overthrown. The horrors of his regime have oppressed her leftist intellectual family, but their hopes for a free society are dealt an even crueler blow when the Islamic Revolution's theological police state comes to power.
Marjane's story takes her into exile in Vienna, where, as a teenager, she falls in with posturing "nihilists" and discovers first love (hilariously), betrayed love (even funnier) and the loneliness of exile. Returning to Tehran in the 1980s, where holding hands in public is penalized with a fine or a whipping and the female models in her art-school drawing classes are hidden under burqas, the chain-smoking rebel falls into a depression, then rouses herself to the tune of "Eye of the Tiger," then falls into a bad first marriage before going into permanent exile in Paris (where Satrapi now lives and works). This bare synopsis doesn't begin to convey the imaginative breadth of "Persepolis," the richness of its characters, the wit with which it encapsulates a huge amount of historical detail or its breezy flights of fancy, which include heavenly discussions between God and Karl Marx, Marjane's otherworldly advisers. Through all her adolescent torments, Marjane is counseled by her earthy, beloved grandmother (the great Danielle Darrieux), a wise, sophisticated and foul-mouthed mentor whose memorable, full-bodied personality belies her 2-D pen-and-ink profile. "Persepolis" is being released in its original French-language version, with an English dub to follow (with Gena Rowlands and Sean Penn, among others). It's not to be missed in any language. In a year that has given us such marvelous animated movies as "Ratatouille" and "Paprika," this vibrant, sly and moving personal odyssey takes pride of place.