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The Taboos and Panic for Women of Iran

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 spirit.


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).


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