Bright Lights Film Journal

Two Films About the Middle East – Body of Lies/Persepolis

There are three basic types of spy stories: 1) the one about the ultra-skilled professional spy who is almost always successful, e.g., James Bond; 2) the one about the civilian amateur who gets caught up in spy stuff, e.g., Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps; and 3) the one that depicts professional spying as a dirty depressing business, e.g., Hitchcock’s The Secret Agent and Topaze, or anything in the Graham Greene/John le Carré mold. Body of Lies (above), starring Leo DiCaprio as an agent stationed in the Middle East and Russell Crowe as his pudgy Washington controller, belongs to the latter category.

Directed with his usual visual proficiency by Ridley Scott from a screenplay by William (The Departed) Monahan, Body of Lies hits most of the required beats for this type of story, including the usual quota of chases, double-crosses, and explosions, and the part where the hero’s girlfriend or someone else close to him is captured by the bad guys. DiCaprio does well enough. Crowe creates yet another memorable characterization. If Body of Lies were simply a spy thriller, it would rate a solid “OK,” worth seeing for viewers who like that sort of thing, but not up to the level of my personal favorite in the spying-is-a-dirty-business genre, The Quiller Memorandum (1966 – scripted by Harold Pinter).

Fortunately, Body of Lies is more than a spy story. It’s also a story about an American (DiCaprio) trying to understand the culture of the Middle East. Although he does a lot of globe-hopping throughout the course of the tale, DiCaprio’s character spends most of his time in Jordan. His interactions with the Jordanian locals, a spy chief (Mark Strong), a nurse (Golshifteh Farahani), and various informants – all exceptionally well-cast – provide the movie with its interest and heart.

Persepolis, an animated film produced in France and based on a graphic novel written and illustrated by Marjane Satrapi takes another approach to the Middle East. (The film was written and directed by Ms. Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud.) Instead of viewing Middle Eastern culture through the eyes of a white foreigner, the culture is seen from the inside through the eyes of “Marji,” a rebellious adolescent growing up in Iran. The story begins during the reign of the Shah (Marji’s uncle is a Communist jailed by the Shah), takes us through the Islamic Revolution, then a brief side-trip to Vienna school where Marji is the outsider, and concludes back in Iran as Marji prepares to leave the present-day theocracy. Aside from Marji’s distinctive viewpoint – torn between Western values and the traditional values of her family – the most striking aspect of the film is its visual style, stark black and white graphics that owe more to the ’50s cartoon modern style than they do to Disney-esque “realism.” (There is a framing sequence in color.)
The voice-casting is uniformly excellent. Marji and her mother are played by Chiara Mastroianni and her real-life mother, Catherine Deneuve. Marji’s grandmother is voiced by Danielle Darrieux, best known for playing Ophuls’ Madame De …. (On the DVD version, you have the choice of listening to the French soundtrack, or an English-language soundtrack where Mastroianni and Deneuve repeat their roles, and the grandmother is voiced by Gena Rowlands.)
Body of Lies and Persepolis are both compelling looks at Middle Eastern culture, but if you have time to watch only one of them, Persepolis is definitely the way to go.
Enjoy the trailer below.