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'The Circle': Unbroken and Unflinching

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2001


    'The Circle' Fereshteh Sadr Orfani consoles a little girl in "The Circle." (Winstar Cinema)
You'd think the birth of a baby girl would be a happy event. But not in "The Circle," a memorable and devastating indictment of the oppression facing many women in Iran.

In Jafar Panahi's fictional movie, news of a female newborn is received with all the grimness of a death announcement. Although we briefly witness the mother giving birth, we never really meet her. We do, however, learn her name: Solmaz Gholami. An old woman (a relative of the mother) scuttles away from the delivery room, almost panic-stricken, because she fears the reaction of the new father's family. In the old woman's eyes, Solmaz has committed a terrible blunder.

And there is this thought hanging ominously in the air: One day, Solmaz's daughter will become a mother, hoping against hope that God will grant her sons.

This episode, which unfolds with documentary straightforwardness, is the first in a chain that links characters thematically, not narratively. After Solmaz, the story moves to an entirely different plot line. But the misery moves like a narrative chain, in which the links are forged with tears and unyielding metal.

The movie, which continues in the same, guerrilla-documentary style, takes up now with Arezou (Mariam Palvin Almani) and Nargess (Nargess Mamizadeh), who have just received temporary passes out of prison. We don't know why they've been jailed, but their plans are clear: They do not intend to return. Also figuring in the story: their friend Pari (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani), also from prison, who has broken out to get an abortion. She's hoping to locate a former inmate, a friend who's married to a doctor.

Pari will find herself presented with an ironic dilemma: persuading a desperate mother (Fatemeh Naghavi) not to abandon her young daughter. What happens to that daughter? What about Pari's own pregnancy? And what is the fate of all these women? Panahi, who also made the transcendent, politically metaphorical "The White Balloon," doesn't "solve" these questions so much as continue the cycle. In these women's lives, trouble never ends; it just segues to something new. These women are out of prison, only to encounter a bigger one around it.

The title, says director Panahi, is derived from an article he read about a woman who committed suicide after killing her two young daughters. The article didn't bother to explain why the woman did this deed, Panahi points out, "as if each woman could replace another in a circle, making them all the same."

Obviously, there is much more to Iran's big picture than this reviewer is qualified to know. But Panahi makes his points with such stark clarity and conviction, it's hard to shrug this deftly choreographed protest away. And it's harder still to forget "The Circle," a low-tech wonder that won the Golden Lion at the 2000 Venice Film Festival, and which is testament to the continuing excellence of Iranian cinema.

"The Circle" (Unrated, 91 minutes) – In Farsi with subtitles. Contains emotionally distressing material.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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