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Iran's 'Circle' of Diminished Women

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 25, 2001


    'The Circle' Fereshteh Sadr Orfani consoles a little girl in "The Circle." (Winstar Cinema)
"The Circle" is clearly one-sided, but what would the other side be?

Well, it would be the argument that women are second-class citizens whose sexuality is so threatening it must be muffled behind masking garments and whose licentiousness is so evident it must be monitored at every stop, and punished when expressed.

So let's just stipulate that the argument of "The Circle" – that women are human beings too, and should not be folded, spindled, mutilated, spied on or enslaved – is pretty much on target, and admire the movie for the passion and precision it brings to its mission.

Made in Iran by Jafar Panahi (who received earlier acclaim for his "White Balloon"), it follows an interesting narrative strategy that might be called the floating protagonist. It doesn't follow one character, start to finish; rather, the point of view, and the camera, float from character to character, telling one story, through several different women, none of them a happy camper.

It opens, chillingly, in a Tehran maternity ward, where a mother gets the worst possible news: Her daughter has just delivered a baby, but it's not a boy, as tests indicated, but a girl. She rushes out, distraught.

As she flees into the night, the camera snags on two other women – Arezou (Maryiam Palvin Almani) and Nargess (Nargess Mamizadeh) – and stays with them long enough to illuminate each of their dilemmas. Both are recently released from prison (reasons unspecified) and seemingly eager to get back to their village. But secretly each fears and hates her village, and the movie documents Nargess's passive-aggressiveness and Arezou's desperation.

The camera wanders again, caught up in another tragedy: an impoverished mother abandoning her beloved daughter in the hope the child will be taken up by a family. It's painful but she believes it's best, and later, fleeing the scene, she accepts a ride from a stranger – a dangerously provocative act in Tehran. She's soon arrested as a prostitute and she's locked up with a real prostitute, probably the toughest of the women whose lives we've entered, but just as oppressed as the weakest of them.

Of course in all of this They are just glimpsed – powerful, hypocritical, cavalier, utterly confident that it is their world and the women are here to serve them. I'm talking about the men of Tehran, a tribe the movie excoriates savagely.

"The Circle" has a picked-up, improvised feeling, as if its materials are too incendiary for polish or craft that might dilute them. But in its brisk way, it's a devastating piece of work, and very brave too. Panahi, a man, can't be too popular with the guys of his homeland.

"The Circle" (91 minutes, in Farsi with English subtitles) is unrated but intense.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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