When one says that the new film by Jafar Panahi, whose “The White Balloon” (1995) was a beautifully simple story about a young girl trying to buy a goldfish, is an indictment of the repression of women in contemporary Iran, and in Farsi with English subtitles, the description is hardly likely to attract viewers addicted to movies like “Rat Race.” But like Marzieh Mishkini’s “The Day I Became a Women,” released earlier this year, “The Circle” is a deeply felt, fascinating work that’s dramatically resonant as well as politically important.
That’s not to say that Panahi’s film resembles Mishkini’s overmuch. The latter was a tripartite allegory about the stages of a woman’s life, beginning with a “White Balloon”-like segment about how a young girl’s life changes when she comes of age, moving on to a stylized bicycle race symbolizing a young woman’s hopeless attempt to escape the constraints society has imposed on her, and concluding with a “magical” sequence centering on an elderly widow’s late- life shopping spree. By contrast “The Circle” is a somber work which owes more to the neorealism of De Sica than to its director’s earlier effort. In structure it’s not unlike Richard Linklater’s “Slacker,” though it has none of that movie’s exuberantly comic tone: we follow one subject until she comes into contact with another, at which point the second woman’s story takes over, and so on. The series begins in the maternity ward of a hospital, where a grandmother treats the birth of a baby girl as a disaster. We then meet three women recently freed from prison, one of whom is desperately trying to get out of the city back to an imaginary rural paradise. Her failure moves us to a sequence about a prison escapee, disowned by her family and friends, as she desperately seeks an abortion. Her story takes us to a mother at the point of abandoning the young daughter she’s unable to support, and from there to a prostitute taken into custody while the man who agreed to purchase her favors is released without charge. In the final scene, the camera roams about a cell in which all the women we’ve followed through the film are being held.
Obviously the point Panahi is making about the Iranian theocracy is similar to that which Alexander Solzhenitsyn presented about Stalin’s regime in “Ivan Denisovich”–for the entire populace (and in the case of Iran, especially for women), the society is effectively a prison, brutalizing its citizens in the supposed service of some higher good, whether it be political or religious. It’s a message he dramatizes with impressive economy and urgency. As he shows the women scurrying in the shadows along the city’s streets, pulling their cloaks about them in an attempt to avoid detection by the ever-present authorities, the oppressiveness of the situation is beautifully captured. Small indignities–a prohibition on females smoking in public, the inability of a woman to purchase a bus ticket without authorization–are used to depict their cumulative impact. The various actresses–from the naive, wide-eyed innocent of Nargess Mamizadeh to the more weathered, despondent stance taken by Mariam Palvin Almani’s Arezou, the anguish of Fatemeh Naghavi’s mother figure and the almost careless resignation of Mojhan Faramarzi’s prostitute–have an authenticity that makes their stories heartbreakingly real.
There are weaknesses in “The Circle.” It’s terribly schematic, and hammers home its message with a relentlessness that can lead one to think that a bit of shading would not be amiss. Yet it’s clearly an impassioned work, one that succeeds in raising both anger and sadness at the injustice it portrays. It’s understandable that the film should have been banned in Iran. All the more reason those of us fortunate enough to be living elsewhere should see, and learn from it.