Jafar Panahi’s first film, The White Balloon (1995), was one of the earliest of the new Iranian cinema to reach a wide Western audience. Its story of a young girl wandering through modern Tehran looking to purchase a pet goldfish was told in an unforced, semidocumentary manner, charming without being sentimental. His second film, The Mirror (1997), began in a similar mode, with another young girl loose in the big city, but took a sharp left turn about a third of the way through and became a film about filmmaking, heightening its sense of cinema verité while maintaining a scrim of fiction — a good device for taking the edge off of one’s social critique.
With The Circle, Panahi has abandoned the kind of subterfuge which has become a common language in his country’s films — that combination of inferences and ellipses which makes them resemble (somewhat incidentally) Western modernist cinema — and addresses head-on the plight of women in Iranian society. The movie is a series of vignettes about a group of women just released from prison, told in linear fashion but with each story folding into the next.
One immediately gets the sense of watching a story that’s taking place in a dystopia that Orwell would have found a bit over-the-top: Two women are scampering down the street, dodging around corners and crouching in fear, one woman dying for a cigarette but knowing that smoking in public could get her arrested again, both aware that their unchaperoned status could get them noticed by the ubiquitous soldiers whose job seems to be to stop people and check their papers.
Just as we’re starting to get really involved with these two, the film veers off into another woman’s plight, which leads to another, and so forth. In this way it becomes an anthology of escalating suffering, going from the woman who can’t smoke and her fear-frozen friend to a woman who wants an abortion to a single mother desperate enough to abandon her female child on a busy city street. By the time we get to the final character, a prostitute, it’s almost a relief, her casual impudence seeming nearly heroic.
This is strong material that doesn’t need to be enhanced, and Panahi has the restrained touch of one of the old neorealist masters, watchfully humane, clear-eyed and damning.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.