When I embarked on this adventure we call the Telluride Film Festival, who knew that when the bags were packed and the banners torn down, the best and most rewarding experience would come from France in the form of an animated film about the Islamic revolution in Iran? And that it would be based on a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi? Or that I’d be so absorbed, charmed, entertained, and delighted that I’d all but declare it the best movie of the year so far? As it stands, it will be tough to beat, for little else on the calendar has rendered its subject so effortlessly and without error. The animation itself, a bold, striking lot of deep blacks, sharp lines, and cold, noir-like landscapes, also features blasts of color whenever the mood strikes. This is no Pixar world of candy canes and silly distraction, even though it would be foolish to believe this is a dull lecture about the perils of religious fanaticism. In fact, the humor all but defines the piece, and there is a sequence involving Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” that just might be the best scene I’ve encountered all year. It’s certainly the most inventive. So yes, there is humor, drama, pathos, adventure, and suspense, and thankfully, nothing feels compelled to dominate. It’s the kind of movie you’ll be so busy enjoying that you’ll forget you should also be admiring the hell out of the thing.
Above all, this is Marjane’s tale, a journey that takes her from the end days of the Shah’s reign, to the Islamic takeover, back through the executions, suspicions, and martial law, and then again for her escape to a boarding school in Vienna. And then the homecoming, years later. It is the brilliance of the movie that, while telling a coming-of-age story, it never succumbs to predictability or sentimentality. This is a bawdy, highly sexualized saga, filled with profanity, lewdness, rebellion, and all the chaotic emotions of youth. The screenplay is knowing and wise, as it both embraces and satirizes its characters in equal turn. From anarchists to trendy homosexuality, the film covers it all, never resorting to the expected snooty tone. And yet, despite the wicked wit, nothing is ever trivialized, especially the brutality of the Iranian state. But this is far from a young woman’s lamentation for the past; the murderous reality of the Shah’s secret police is never hidden and at bottom, the film is more concerned with how schizophrenic recent Iranian history has been, and how a girl might interpret the shifting and contradictory loyalties. In the midst of it all, we get an authentic account of life under tyranny; the whispers, the lies, and, most importantly, the open secret that whatever might be passed down from above, the people are rarely buying. It’s an important fact to remember whenever we engage in saber-rattling with the likes of Iran. The decency and independence of the Persian people should never be engulfed by the sheer idiocy of its leaders. That confusion is at our peril. But even that seems preachy. Thankfully, the film never makes the same mistake. Truly unforgettable.