FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW
The Taboos and Panic for Women of Iran
By A. O. SCOTT
The New York Times
September 26, 2000
Jafar Panahi's first feature, "The White Balloon," released
in the United States in 1995 after its debut at the New York Film Festival,
was among the first products of the Iranian new wave to reach a wide and
enthusiastic audience in the West. That film, the delicate, charming tale
of a 7-year-old girl's search, through the workaday bustle of Tehran, for
the perfect pet goldfish, showcased what have come to be seen as the hallmarks
of contemporary Iranian cinema: a sensitive, unsentimental interest in
childhood, extensive use of the outdoors and nonprofessional actors, and
an approach to storytelling at once straightforward and elliptical.
"The Circle," which has been banned by the Iranian authorities,
is more ambitious and unsettling, and it announces the presence of a tougher,
more overtly political style of filmmaking. While it shares the earlier
film's narrative clarity and formal precision as well as its feel for the
bustle and surprise of daily life, it focuses with unflinching candor on
some of the harsher aspects of life in that Islamic republic.
The first scene shows an older woman's reaction to the news of her granddaughter's
birth, a reaction that passes from denial to chagrin without stopping at
joy. "The ultrasound said it was going to be a boy," she complains
to the nurse. "Now the in-laws will insist on a divorce." Her
scene of distress is a thematic prelude to what follows. As she leaves
the hospital, the woman passes a group of three younger women huddled around
a pay phone, and the camera, as if distracted, stays with them. (The technique
is reminiscent of Richard Linklater's "Slacker.")
For reasons that emerge only gradually and obliquely, the three women
are in a state of agitation and panic, hiding behind parked cars when the
police are in the area, darting into alleyways, hastily throwing chadors
over their heads and shoulders. They seem to be in flight, though from
what threat and toward what refuge remains mysterious; we know before long
that they, like many of the women they meet in their peregrinations, have
spent time in prison, but we never find out why.
Their chance separations, reunions and encounters wtih strangers and
old friends give "The Circle" a syncopated, anxious narrative
rhythm. The most vulnerable is Nargess (Nargess Mamizadeh), who has a livid
purple bruise under her left eye. She is desperate to return to her home
in the countryside, which she believes is depicted in the reproduction
of a van Gogh painting she discovers while wandering through the marketplace.
She is sheltered for a while by the big-sisterly solicitude of Arezou
(Maryam Parvin Almani), but one of the film's discoveries is that women
in trouble can do very little to help one another.
Arezou, Nargess and Pari (Fereshteh Sadr Orafai), who vanishes early
in the film only to reappear, running for her life, in its last third,
are not presented simply as victims of society's cruelty to women. The
film is startlingly forthright about the problems they face, and not only
by Iranian standards. With great tact and sympathy, and without ever resorting
to melodrama, Mr. Panahi stares at what, in any society, are uncomfortable,
even taboo subjects: abortion, prostitution, family violence, the abandonment
of children. The political implications of the film are manifest, as is
the quiet courage of making it, but you never have the sense that Mr. Panahi
is stacking the deck or making an argument. His method is investigative
rather than didactic, and his bravery arises from the bracing conviction
that it is necessary and possible for an artist simply to tell the truth.
Or maybe not so simply. One of the deepest impressions "The Circle"
leaves is of the terrifying but also in its way thrilling complexity of
experience. If the film declines to pass judgment on Pari, Arezou and Nargess,
it also refuses to condescend to them by assuming their innocence. The
three principal actresses give remarkably open performances; their faces
(which, given Iranian standards of propriety, are all they have to work
with) are alive with emotions that compensate for the gaps in the story.
Ms. Mamizadeh, a nonprofessional still in her late teens when the movie
was made, is especially amazing in a scene where, for reasons destined
to remain opaque, she buys a man's shirt at a shop in the bus terminal.
The intimations of pleasure and fear that play across her features are
simply magical. Ms. Orafai, who also appeared in "The White Balloon,"
possesses a sensuous, mournful dignity that recalls Ingrid Bergman in her
prime. Pari's life history is treated more fully than the lives of her
companions, and she remains strong-willed and good-humored even as she
veers inexorably toward tragedy.
In Iran, it is unacceptable for a woman to smoke a cigarette in public,
a circumstance that Mr. Panahi uses both as a symbol of repression and
a poignant, sometimes comic motif. First Arezou and then Pari, even as
they are embroiled in more serious quests, expend a lot of time and anxiety
in the frustrated search for a safe place to smoke. When, near the end,
a prostitute on her way to jail finally lights up, it's a moment worthy
of 1940's Hollywood, a small, ephemeral but in its way heroic declaration
of freedom, and therefore the perfect expression of this film's resilient
Directed and edited by Jafar Panahi; written (in Farsi, with English
subtitles) by Kambozia Partovi, based on a story by Mr. Panahi; director
of photography, Bahram Badakhshani; art director, Iraj Ramin-Far; produced
by Mohammad Attebai; released by Winstar Cinema. Running time: 89 minutes.
This film is not rated. Shown with a 13-minute short, Raymond Red's "Anino,"
tonight at 9 and tomorrow night at 6 at Alice Tully Hall as part of the
38th New York Film Festival.
WITH: Maryam Parvin Almani (Arezou), Nargess Mamizadeh (Nargess),
Fatemeh Naghavi (The Mother) and Fereshteh Sadr Orafai (Pari).