Dramatizing the terrifying discrimination against women in Iranian society, Jafar Panahi’s “The Circle” both fascinates and horrifies with its bold assertions about what it means to be a woman under a cruel, institutionalized patriarchy. The pic is shot with such skillful simplicity, the hallmark of Iran’s finest cinema, that the story of seven women who have crossed the law goes beyond its social statement to achieve a universal human vision. With its content pushing at the outer limits of Iran censorship, “Circle” was formally banned until recently at home, but a major prize at Venice could help the film find a local release date and open up wider vistas around the world for this Italian coprod.
“The Circle” journeys down the realist road, closely observing individuals, using non-pro thesps and direct sound in place of music, while it also sets the characters in a dramatic context.
Panahi and his (male) scriptwriter Kambozia Partovi tackle one of the most taboo subjects in Iranian cinema. Though the film apparently deals with extreme cases of women who have been to prison, it is clear that the legal system is society’s way of punishing any female who steps out of line.
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The film opens to the sound of a woman’s screams over a black screen. The narrative circle begins in a hospital maternity ward, where the unseen woman has just given birth to a baby girl. It will be her ruin, because her husband and in-laws are expecting a boy. This is the end of her brief story, but her name will be mysteriously heard once again at pic’s end, in a police station.
Smoothly moving the camera into the street, Panahi picks up three tough-looking young women who have left prison on a temporary pass. Why they were sentenced and whether they are guilty is never mentioned.
Arezou (Maryiam Parvin Almani) protects the 18-year-old Nargess (Nargess Mamizadeh), a girl whose innocent face sports a black eye and who seems unable to fend for herself. To get her money for a bus ticket home, Arezou makes an arrangement with some men she knows that is never spelled out, but which could be prostitution.
This segues into the story of the third girl, Pari (Fereshteh Sadr Orafai), who has escaped from prison to get an abortion. She looks up former jailmates Monir, a generous woman whose husband took a second wife while she was behind bars, and Elham, a nurse who is anxious to hide her past from her new husband. Pari’s path crosses that of another desperate woman, a single mother forced to abandon her little daughter on the street, hoping she will be adopted. Her story leads to an encounter with a resigned young prostitute, picked up at a roadblock.
The circle closes in a police station, shot just like the maternity ward at the beginning. The parallel drawn between the two locations would be shocking even in a Western film; here it is a very radical statement indeed.
Filmmaker Panahi here makes a leap beyond the films about children that won him international acclaim, “The White Balloon” and “The Mirror.” Without forcing, the stories bring out discrimination’s many faces.
A woman can’t buy an out-of-town bus ticket unless she’s accompanied; she can’t ride in a car with a man to whom she’s not related, or have an abortion without her husband and father’s consent. Women appear to be under the constant surveillance of men, who have the right to determine the limits of their freedom. Yet, though they have little control over their lives, they are shown as admirably resilient and courageous.
The idea of female lives making up an endless circle is echoed in Bahram Badakhshani’s fluid camerawork that follows femmes up and down stairs, through the streets and across a vast bus terminal, all sans Steadicam. The camera lingers on the actresses’ faces, bringing their problems and feelings up close to the viewer.
Iraj Raminfar’s art direction is a plus, while Panahi’s editing changes pace to follow each character’s rhythm, from the frenetic opening sequences to a nearly immobile conclusion.
“Circle” marks the second Iranian film screened at Venice about female oppression, after Marziyeh Meshkini’s allegorical “The Day I Became a Woman.”