By Deborah Young
September 11, 2000
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. Photo
"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
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
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
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."
A Mikado release (in Italy) of a Jafar Panahi Film Productions (Iran)/Mikado/Lumiere
& Co. (Italy) coproduction. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams,
Paris.) Produced by Jafar Panahi. Associate producer, Mohammad Atebbai.
Directed by Jafar Panahi. Screenplay, Kambozia Partovi. Camera (color),
Bahram Badakhshani; editor, Panahi; art director, Iraj Raminfar; sound,
Sassan Bagherpour, Ahmad Ardalan; assistant directors, Fereshteh Sadr Orafai,
Ali Aghababai. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (competing), Sept. 6, 2000.
Running time: 91 MIN.
Arezou......Maryiam Parvin Almani
Pari.....Fereshteh Sadr Orafai
Ticket seller.....Monir Arab