By Labor Day the Oscar race for best animated feature of 2007 alreadyseemed to be over: Ratatouille, the Disney/Pixar fantasy about a rat who dreams of becoming a chef, had been collecting rave reviews and cleaning up at the box office all summer. I still wouldn’t bet against it—Hollywood never turns its back on a movie that’s made $618 million—but the lock began to loosen in mid-September when the French animated movie Persepolis made its North American debut at the Toronto film festival. Based on Marjane Satrapi’s comics about growing up during the Iranian revolution and Iran-Iraq War, this hand-drawn, mostly black-and-white story is every bit as beautiful as Pixar’s state-of-the-art digital feature—and a lot more important. If Ratatouille taught the world that rats have feelings too, Persepolis teaches the same thing about the people of Iran, who in the current political climate are probably in greater danger of being eradicated.

Unfortunately Persepolis (whose Chicago release was pushed back to January 18 as this issue went to press) won’t get anything like the promotional blitz enjoyed by Ratatouille, which opened in nearly 4,000 theaters nationwide. After Persepolis premiered at Cannes in May, Satrapi told the International Herald Tribune that an English-dubbed version was in the works, and a subsequent story in the Hollywood Reporter listed Sean Penn, Gena Rowlands, and Satrapi’s hero Iggy Pop as voice talent for the alternate release. With its rebellious young heroine, universal coming-of-age story, and solid PG-13 rating, the movie might have won a following at every small-town multiplex in America, enlightening millions of kids raised on fear-mongering rhetoric about the Axis of Evil. But according to Jeff Marden, the film’s Chicago publicist, Sony Pictures Classics now has no plans to release an English-dubbed version, which almost guarantees that Persepolis will be confined to art houses in major cities. A subtitled version opened on Christmas Day in just seven theaters.

Sony’s decision to treat the movie as an objet d’art may please cinephiles in the U.S., where dubbing is equated with pop-culture junk (Italian horror movies, Japanese sci-fi, kung fu, anime). But the fact is that most people don’t like having to follow type at the bottom of a movie frame any more than they’d like hearing someone call out the harmonic changes during a symphony. One reason U.S. movies are ubiquitous abroad and foreign movies are ghettoized here may be that we insist on subtitling imports when most other countries accept dubbing; during the silent era, when intertitles could be switched out easily, there was a much healthier exchange of world cinema. Despite the inherent vulgarity of American celebrities providing voices for a story set in Iran, I have a hard time getting upset about the supervised English redubbing of an animated movie—especially one that was written and originally dubbed in French, already one language removed from the culture it depicts.

One person who can’t be too pleased about the nixed American version is Satrapi, who’s done everything she can to make her autobiographical tale accessible to as many people as possible. Though she’s a published writer in France, she decided to try a comic book (she’s said she finds the term “graphic novel” too pretentious) after being rocked by the visual power of Art Spiegelman’s Maus. “Image is an international language,” she told the Web site for Powell’s Books. “When you draw a situation—someone is scared or angry or happy—it means the same thing in all cultures.” From the start she framed the story for Western readers, writing in French rather than her native Farsi. The story’s greatest value lies in its elegant twining of the universal and the obscure: Satrapi’s funny and painful memories of childhood and adolescence will be familiar to most young women, but along with these come revelatory glimpses of her parents and their family, rebellious intellectuals who quietly tend the flame of liberal humanism in a Muslim theocracy.

Ironically, that flame often takes the form of our cultural junk. In the movie little Marjane makes her first big appearance breaking through the forest of adults’ legs at a family party and striking martial arts poses she’s learned from another of her heros, Bruce Lee. (When a friend complains that Marjane has kicked her in the head with her Adidas, Marjane explains, “The dragon’s revenge is a bitter dish best served cold.”) Four years later, after the fall of the shah and the rise of Khomeini, she’s a student at the French school in Tehran; while her veiled teacher lectures on the wisdom of women covering their heads in public, Marjane and her classmates in the back row show each other smuggled records by ABBA and the Bee Gees. Since the founding of the Islamic republic, any hint of Western pop culture is subject to harassment by the Revolutionary Guards, so Marjane is taking a serious risk when she strolls around Tehran wearing a jeans jacket with punk is not ded inked on the back. In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, she runs a gauntlet of black marketers furtively selling cassette tapes of Stevie Wonder, Julio Iglesias, Pink Floyd, and Michael Jackson. A headbanger at heart, Marjane scores an Iron Maiden tape and, back in her bedroom, thrashes around with a tennis racket for a guitar.

While low culture is equated with liberation, high culture often seems oppressive. By the time Satrapi was 14 she’d become such a rebel that her parents had decided to get her out of Iran, enrolling her in the French high school in Vienna. The movie’s second half finds Marjane, in dire need of friends, falling in with a little clique led by Momo, a smug nihilist wearing spectacles and a Mohawk. Marjane reads up on her friends’ heroes—Freud, Sarte, Bakunin, Zweig—but she doesn’t really get them, and she’s increasingly alienated by Momo, who complains about having to see his family at Christmas and dismisses Santa Claus as a mascot for Coca-Cola. After Kurt Waldheim is elected president of Austria and someone suggests they join a street protest, Momo sniffs, “Life is a void. When man realizes that, he can no longer live, so he invents power games.” This is too much for Marjane, whose parents risked their lives to oppose the shah and whose beloved uncle was executed by the Islamic republic. “Bullshit!” she shouts. “Life isn’t absurd. Some people give their lives for freedom.” For once, Momo has no reply.

The power of pop culture to free people’s minds is nothing new: as Tom Stoppard reminds us in his latest play, Rock ‘n’ Roll, British and American rock was the soundtrack for the 1989 Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. Western pop culture helped inoculate Satrapi against the propaganda of the Islamic republic, and she’s returned the favor by choosing a lowbrow medium for her life story. “If people are given the chance to experience life in more than one country, they will hate a little less,” she writes on the Web site for Pantheon Books, U.S. publisher of The Complete Persepolis. “It’s not a miracle potion, but little by little you can solve problems in the basement of a country, not on the surface.” Unfortunately, as the niche marketing of Persepolis in the U.S. proves, we may be too embarrassed by our tackiness to let a graphic novel be a comic book, or to let an animated film be a cartoon, and as a result we wind up hoarding culture away from the people who might benefit from it the most. I say we unlock the basement and let in the light. v