Jafar Panahi's The Circle opens with the horrifying screams of a woman whom we assume is being tortured. Turns out she's giving birth to a beautiful baby girl ' a beautiful baby girl who, according to the ultrasound, was supposed to be a beautiful baby boy. Outside the delivery room, the disappointment is palpable.
And that's only the beginning. By the time The Circle is complete, we realize that to be born female in contemporary Iran is to receive a life sentence without possibility of parole. Either you get married, which is a form of enslavement, or you don't, which is a form of internal exile. The women who pass through The Circle are all on the run, trying to avoid the police, but we never learn what they've done. It's Kafka's The Trial set in an Islamic republic. And although each woman, in her own way, resists the situation she finds herself in, there's an inexorable pull from that maternity ward to the city jail, like water spiraling down a drain. Panahi's use of the circle as a metaphor may be a little overdetermined in places, but we're left with little doubt as to what kind of circle we're talking about ' a vicious circle, a Dantean circle.
I'm not sure I can recall a movie that has criticized Iranian society so directly. We've been getting lots of allegories featuring small children, including Panahi's own The White Balloon and The Mirror, but it's relatively rare to even see an Iranian woman in an Iranian movie, let alone see her struggle with issues most of us have only read about. Through a daisy-chain narrative that has the characters handing off the storyline to one another, as if it were a baton, The Circle takes on such hot-button topics as prostitution, abortion, child abandonment and ' a running motif that plays like a sad cosmic joke ' smoking, which Iranian women aren't allowed to do in public. Just the sight of a woman crouching in an alley to take a couple of puffs on a cigarette seems thrilling. To Panahi, it's a symbol of the women's desire to breathe free.
No wonder the film's been banned in Iran. And no wonder it won the Golden Lion at last year's Venice Film Festival. Not that The Circle is just some glorified cinematic pamphlet; it's a full-fledged work of art in which form and content are inextricably bound, the streets of Tehran taking on the contours of an elaborate maze with no exit. Over its hour-and-a-half running time, the film goes from day to night, light to dark, jumpy to groggy. And the sounds of the city, which at first seem so indifferent to the women's plight, gradually seem in cahoots with the authorities. By the end, as the camera does a 360-degree pan of a jail cell, there's almost no sound at all, the wheels of justice moving so slowly they might as well be stuck in mud.