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With: Maryiam Palvin Almani, Nargess Mamizadeh, Fareshteh Sadr Orfani, Monir Arab, Elham Saboktakin, Fatemeh Naghavi, Mojgan Faramarzi
Written by: Kambuzia Partovi
Directed by: Jafar Panahi
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Farsi with English subtitles
Running Time: 91
Date: 09/06/2000

The Circle (2000)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Round and Round

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Just a few weeks ago, the Shooting Gallery film series released Marziyeh Meshkini's and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's The Day I Became a Woman. I was afraid then that no one would see that beautiful and vibrant film because it seemed to be about "battered Iranian women," though it was really about their breathtaking attempts to escape domination. Now comes Jafar Panahi's The Circle, a far more heavyweight, but equally brilliant film about women whose escape seems unlikely.

The film opens and closes on the image of a metal window sliding open and closed within the frame of a door. In the first scene, the window reveals a maternity ward. A nurse informs a woman that a child has been born -- a girl. The response is one of disappointment, bewilderment, and despair. The camera follows the distraught family members through the hallways, down a flight of stairs, and onto the street, where we meet three other women, clad in their chadors. Though it's not explained to us right away, these three have been temporarily released from jail and now desperately seek illegal passage out of town. One is immediately arrested and the other (Mariam Palvin Almani) arranges for the third (Nargess Mamizadeh) to take the bus alone, which she cannot do.

The third woman instead goes to visit another former inmate (Feresteh Sadr Orfani), who has just been thrown out of her home for being pregnant. Hoping for an abortion, she, in turn, goes to see another former inmate who works at a hospital. Rejected, the pregnant woman happens upon a mother (Fatemeh Naghavi) in the process of abandoning her young daughter on the street. The mother hides behind a car, waiting for the police to take the child away. On her way home, she accepts a ride from a man and is arrested for prostitution. Meanwhile, a full-fledged prostitute (Mojhan Faramarzi), out on the street wearing makeup and no head covering, gets arrested as well. The final shot brings all of our characters together and leaves them inside a room with a little window in the door.

I go to such pains to describe the film because director Panahi's direction is so painstakingly deliberate. Like his mentor Abbas Kiarostami, who contributed the screenplay for Panahi's debut feature The White Balloon (1995), Panahi makes his films seem random and documentary-like, but in reality they flow with the utmost care and planning. Several wedding scenes and members of wedding parties dart on and off screen, reminding us of the humble, possibly romantic, beginnings to these sad women's lives. Precisely placed offscreen sounds and music affect us in nearly the same way.

Whereas the Makhmalbaf family is concerned with capturing beautiful, poetic moments and framing them, Panahi wishes to get inside his stories, finding a mood or an idea and then matching an image to it. And whereas Kiarostami's characters inhabit small towns and outskirts, Panahi navigates his characters through the twisted, iron hearts of cities, thereby bringing more chaos to his films. As a result, The Circle is a highly challenging experience, and it marks the first Iranian film I know of to be banned in its home country and still receive a U.S. release.

Panahi also succeeds by avoiding preaching and offering half-baked solutions to the women's problems. Indeed, we get the impression that these characters' lives began before the film began and will keep going after the film ends. The Circle simply finds them at particularly desperate moments and steals a look for a short time. It's stark and difficult, but The Circle will leave you feeling alive.

Fox/Lorber's DVD release includes an interview with director Panahi, trailers, and optional subtitles. If you look very carefully at the small print on the spine of the DVD box, you'll see my review blurbed!

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