The two films in discussion – ‘Persepolis’ and ‘Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and …Spring’ are very dissimilar in terms of techniques employed, but share common themes. Persepolis tells the story of Marjane from her childhood through adulthood in the backdrop of hostile political atmosphere in Iran. It is one of a kind movie, for it is rare that politico-historical subjects are treated in an animation format. This cinematic experiment has worked out well, as symbolism and abstract depictions are well suited to socio-political drama. Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter and…Spring is a masterpiece in its own right. This film treats such difficult subjects as nature v nurture, religion, meaning of life, human tendencies for sin, methods for salvation, etc. Broad and yet profound in its interpretative scope, the director conveys his musings mainly through visuals set amongst brilliant natural scenery. Dialogues playing second fiddle as a narrative device but are potent nevertheless.
The two main characters of the two films are Marjane and the young monk respectively. The character and life story of the young monk holds a better universal appeal, as the director treats his life history via universal metaphors. In other words, the events, conditions and temptations that confront the young monk are representative of broader humanity. Religion is shown in a benign light in Spring, Summer…while it is shown as oppressive in Persepolis. Indeed, in the life of young Marjane, religion (at least those who claim to stand for it) is authoritative, repressive and cruel. In contrast, in Spring, Summer…, the young monk comes of age by committing mistakes that were discouraged by his religious code. Yet, his wise master was not prohibitive of those mistakes, although he was well cognizant of their implications. The wise and experienced master allows his ward to learn the realities of life by himself. The master is not indifferent to the wellbeing of his ward, but merely austere and understated in his guidance. For the master knows scriptures cannot substitute real life experience and that the young monk will have to eventually find his own way out of worldly temptations. Hence, the process of coming of age for the young monk is by learning to see his own shortcomings. The compassion and warmth of the wise master was also instrumental in his growth.
In contrast, in the case of Marjane, the process of coming of age is not through understanding her frailties. To the contrary, she is a regular girl with normal affections and inclinations reflecting various stages of growth. But the country in which she grows up – Iran – was going through radical political upheavals. She gets valuable guidance through elders in her family, most notably, her uncle and her grandmother. Her uncle fought the excesses of Shah’s regime and was persecuted for the same. Later, when he objected to the oppression of the Islamic regime, he was imprisoned and eventually executed. But he made a profound impression on the formative mind of young Marjane. His words of advice to her – “stay true to yourself, never compromise on your dignity” – would remain as a guiding beacon to Marjane whenever she is troubled by social and political circumstances. Her grandmother too reiterates the thoughts of her illustrious uncle and admonishes Marjane whenever she breaches those lofty standards. Marjane grows up, albeit with lots of hurdles en-route, by upholding her principles in light of strong authoritarian opposition. She doesn’t always win, as illustrated by her sad return to home from Vienna and her short-lived marriage. But, she is the stronger for it. This is evident in her last conversation with her grandmother before filing for divorce and leaving for Europe a second time. The Marjane that leaves for Europe the second time is a stronger, wiser and more practical person. Thus, her growing up process can be claimed a success.
Coming back to the growing up process of the young monk, his crucial confrontation is with lust. His inadvertent killing of the snake, frog and the fish as a boy are easy to forgive. But his surrender to the forces of lust and possession as a young man commit him to a sequence of sins. Every time he yields to temptation, he becomes a sorrier human specimen. His brutal killing of his unfaithful wife and subsequent escape to the forests complete his unsuccessful attempts to find happiness through worldly pleasures. His emancipation and complete mastery of his frailties begin at the very moment he returns to his old master seeking refuge from police. His master doesn’t try to save him from police, but instead shows him the path by instructing him to sculpt Buddhist scriptures on the wooden quay. The young monk’s life from this point onwards is a stead journey toward emancipation.
Hence, though religion plays a key role in the coming of age of Marjane and the young monk, the oppressive nature of Iranian theocracy is far removed and in opposition to the serenity of the Buddhist monastery. The paths taken by Marjane and the young monk were full of dangers and challenges, but they both emerge stronger through the hard grind of their experiences.