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Jafar Panahi Film Productions
Official Site
Director: Jafar Panahi
Producer: Jafar Panahi
Written by: Kambozia Partovi
Cast: Mariam Palvin Almani, Nargess Mamizadeh, Fereshteh Sadr Orfani, Monir Arab, Elham Saboktakin, Fatemeh Naghavi, Mojahan Faramarzi

Rating: out of 5

Like any good film structured around transient characters, the spaces—be they roads, nature, or the underground—they occupy represent both freedom and danger. These spaces become a symbol of hope and a source of entrapment. THE CIRCLE is no different except that female characters occupy these malicious and beautiful spaces. Rather than fugitives on the run or self-anointed abject members of society, the women trapped in this circle are fugitives because they search for freedom and abject simply because of their gender.

THE CIRCLE is Iranian director Jafar Panahi’s third film and it won the Golden Lion at last year’s Venice Film Festival. (His other films include THE WHITE BALLOON and THE MIRROR.) Panahi, for only having two other films under his belt, is a brilliant filmmaker whose strong understanding of the relationship between technique and content shares certain similarities with that of his mentor—Abbas Kiarostami (THROUGH THE OLIVE TREES)—but who certainly has a distinct style.

THE CIRCLE is a film about women, women struggling alone in a society that offers no room for a woman outside of marriage and home. While elements of this theme are present in his previous films, it comes to the fore with THE CIRCLE. The film opens with only the sounds of a woman giving birth (thus establishing the importance of sound throughout) and as the image fades in a small window opens and a woman is told that her grandchild’s newborn is a girl and not the expected boy the ultrasound indicated. Frantic, she leaves the waiting room in search of her daughter before the parents-in-laws can discover the disappointing news about the baby’s gender. Finding her daughter, Tehran, she sends her out into the crowed streets—a place where women are not permitted to occupy without a man—to make a phone call. It is in the streets where the rest of the narrative will play out as four separate stories fade into each other, each character coming in contact with the next, perpetuating the slow, culminating flow of the film until THE CIRCLE is closed with an epilogue joining the five main characters in a single jail cell (the only other interior).

The visual and audio techniques meld together as each character trying to escape the traditional roles allotted to them becomes lost in the crowded streets of a modern city, trying to avoid being caught and hoping to find a way out. Throughout the film Panahi uses sound to create a modern city’s hustle and bustle and tight shots to create the trapped and claustrophobic position of these women operating outside the law as fugitives from male domination. In several scenes weddings are part of the background and serve as a formalistic reminder of the world which they have left behind. On the other hand, the urban spaces, which the women negotiate throughout the film, constantly remind them they are not welcome. Scenes of women in narrow pathways that lead to private homes articulate their situation without using dialogue by providing powerful images of women trapped between the private roles they are supposed to take up and public streets, which offer them no rightful position. The flow of the narrative, as it shifts from woman to woman, intensifies as day becomes night and the shared sense of despair and injustice culminate into kinship and even hope.

But even with the help of each other, these oppressed women, who obviously represent very different class and age positions of Iranian society, are never able to escape the circle which binds them. Ultimately, as the names of a few women indicate—Pari means “angel,” Negress means “flower”—the circle is as much about community and hope as it is that sense of entrapment and pointlessness. And as the late afternoon turns into night the only thing left is each other and hope.

The film was hindered from the beginning by governmental objections to the script and also reportedly had several suspicious lab accidents. Although this production history does have its effect on the film, it is nothing too severe. The film is an amazing story that needs to be told and an excellent example of art bluntly serving a function art can never escape: politics.

—Eric Vanstrom

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