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Filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s 1995 feature debut, The White Balloon, was instrumental in creating an American audience for Iranian cinema. Moviegoers charmed by this engaging tale of a little girl’s attempts to purchase a lucky goldfish on the Iranian New Year’s Eve will surely be startled by the starkness of Panahi’s third film, The Circle. Banned from exhibition in the director’s homeland, it’s a politically and cinematically challenging work, formidable if, at times, excessively forbidding.

In both theme and structure, Panahi depicts the subjugation of Iranian women from cradle to grave. Inspired by a newspaper account of a mother who committed suicide after killing her two daughters, the filmmaker envisioned women in his society as inmates of a vast prison. Screenwriter Kambozia Partovi developed this theme into a narrative that fuses the stories of several unrelated women to form a mosaic of suffocating repression.

Panahi wastes no time establishing his thesis. Harrowing screams of a woman in labor accompany the black-and-white credits. The film opens in a Tehran hospital as an elderly woman learns that, contrary to a sonogram prediction, her daughter has just given birth to a girl. What should be an occasion for celebration is ruined by the old lady’s awareness that the son-in-law’s family will reject her daughter for failing to produce a son. Despondent, she leaves the hospital.

As the old woman enters a busy street, Panahi’s camera shifts to two furtive young women. Although the explanation for their agitation is withheld until later in the film, Arezou (Mariam Palvin Almani) and Nargess (Nargess Mamizadeh) have been granted temporary release from prison (their transgressions are never specified) and plan to escape to Nargress’ bucolic birthplace. Strapped for money, Arezou compromises herself to obtain bus fare for her friend. But a law prohibiting Iranian women from traveling alone without proper identification inhibits Nargress’ departure.

Pari (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani), a friend of the two young women, has escaped from prison. Four months pregnant and turned away by her family, she seeks help in obtaining an abortion from Elham (Elham Saboktakin), a former inmate who has become a nurse and married a doctor. Fearful of the consequences of assisting her friend, Elham offers Pari money, which she proudly refuses. Wandering the streets, she encounters Nayereh (Fatemeh Naghavi), an impoverished woman in the process of abandoning her daughter, hoping that the child will be taken in by someone who can better afford to raise her. After painfully leaving the girl, the mother is entrapped and arrested by police on a trumped-up charge of prostitution.

By linking these lives into a chain of hopelessness, Panahi indicts the constraints imposed on women by fundamentalist Iran’s patriarchic laws and traditions. The cumulative effect is powerful, though the result is frustrating. Unleavened by even a fleeting flicker of happiness to add contrast to the unrelenting dolor, The Circle grows increasingly depressive and, at moments, crudely melodramatic. (“God knows how I’ve suffered,” moans the selfless, Stella Dallas-like Nayereh.) Non-Iranian audiences appalled by the film’s vision watch helplessly, denied the possibility of taking action to alleviate the conditions of women in a society immune to outside intervention.

Almost entirely shot on exterior locations, The Circle has a neo-documentary, slice-of-life texture. But a closer examination reveals that Panahi’s directorial strategies are premeditated. The opening sequence, which lasts three-and-a-half minutes, is a remarkable technical feat, starting in the hospital with the old woman, then following her down several flights of stairs into the street. In another equally complex extended shot, Nayereh deserts her child and, heartbroken, walks alone through the streets, where she is picked up by a plainclothes policeman and driven several blocks—all without a single cut. Unlike the virtuoso camera movements of Max Ophüls, Martin Scorsese, and the like, which are designed to dazzle, Panahi’s long takes are motivated by empathy for his characters; he eschews cuts to avoid distancing us from his protagonists.

The director also employs thematic repetitions and visual motifs to impose order on his seemingly spontaneous work. Nearly all of the characters attempt to smoke cigarettes—a comfort legally denied Iranian women in public places—but their efforts are consistently thwarted. (This device recalls Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, about a group of friends who are repeatedly foiled in their attempts to dine together.) The Circle begins with a shot of a closed door, equipped with a sliding panel through which a nurse calls for a relative of Solmaz Gholami, the mother—who is never seen—of the unwelcome baby girl. The film ends with a shot of a similar door, this time sealing the prison cell to which Nayereh has been consigned with other errant women. The panel slides open to reveal a guard’s face vainly summoning someone with the same name.

In an interview accompanying The Circle’s press material, Panahi explains: “Solmaz means something that never withers, like a flower that always remains fresh. But, ironically, this baby seems to have been born already withered. She is doomed to wither because no one’s happy about her birth. I also chose the name Solmaz because it’s my daughter’s name!” The filmmaker’s allusion to his own child clarifies why, despite several years of government resistance, he persevered in making this film rather than a sunnier, more accessible project like The White Balloon. He marshals his resources in this outraged work of art in an effort to effect a more egalitarian society for his young daughter than the one that ensnares his characters. CP