Round and Round
As the opening credits appear against a dark background, an unseen woman shrieks in agony. It sounds as if she is being fatally wounded. The eventual peal of an infant's cry reveals that she has been in the throes of labor. But we never get a chance to see her. She is one of the many women in Jafar Panahi's frenetic film The Circle who are heard but not seen, seen but not heard, seen and heard but not acknowledged, or acknowledged only with suspicion. What we do see, however, as the screen begins to brighten, is the baby's fretful maternal grandmother, wearing a chador and tapping at a small counter window that slides open only long enough for a nurse to deliver some damning news: Her daughter has birthed a "beautiful little girl."
The door slides shut, and in the crowded waiting area we hear only fragments of speculation about an imminent divorce: A faulty ultrasound reading had predicted a boy. The distraught old woman burrows out of the busy hospital and into the busier street, whereupon the fickle camera abandons her. Abandonment and displacement are repeated motifs in Panahi's captivating formalist exercise: His deceptively chaotic choreography allows the camera to take up and follow, with apparent real-time randomness, the sequential struggles of several women whose lives crisscross in the streets, alleys, and public spaces of Tehran.
By virtue of its circular style, some American critics have likened the film to an Iranian feminist Slacker. In Iran, Panahi and his fellow "Khatami Wave" filmmakers have been criticized for exploiting the nation's cultural struggles, presenting them for consumption by foreign audiences. But despite still-extant content restrictions since the reformist election of 1997, the Iranian film industry has been burgeoning. Four years ago, Taste of Cherry, by Panahi's mentor, Abbas Kiarostami, became the first Iranian film to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes. And last year, the 41-year-old Panahi (The White Balloon) netted Venice's Golden Lion for The Circle's depiction of the nuances of gender injustice. As it happens, during the frenzy of stateside acclaim for the film, Panahi himself gained some unplanned personal attention as the victim of international cultural prejudice, having been detained and subjected to gratuitous background checks at JFK airport en route to introducing his work at the New York Film Festival.
Still, whatever indignities the filmmaker suffered in the U.S., women in Iran are significantly worse off. All of The Circle's characters truly exist off the grid. For a woman without a man in Panahi's Tehran, the sidewalks, train stations, and bazaars are rife with the threat of harm or public shame. While men are availed of the luxury to loiter, a woman with extra time is immediately suspect. It's the flipside of urban theorist Jane Jacobs's notion of the policing eyes of benevolent neighbors. As viewers, we begin to squirm under this gaze when, after the first scene in the hospital, the voyeuristic camera stumbles upon a second harrowing scenario. Two young women, Arezou (Maryiam Palvin Almani) and Nargess (Nargess Mamizadeh), who have escaped from prison, crouch behind cars, watching as a companion fugitive is intercepted by police. Their goal is to escape Tehran, and the camera trails them for a while as they attempt to overcome obstacles--some legal, some cultural, and some psychological.
The women are alone even when together. Though obviously bonded in their mission, they seem ill-matched and uneasy. Nargess's callowness creates the potential risk of exposure, and city-savvy Arezou decides that the two should part ways, ultimately earning the money for her young companion's bus ticket by granting a hasty and undefined sexual favor to an anonymous male solicitor. As Arezou follows the man up a massive winding stair around the perimeter of a plaza bazaar, the camera remains with Nargess, who watches in silent trepidation as her friend disappears.
The ambivalent teenager never does take the bus to her remote home village, perhaps feeling safer amid the urban throng. She is frightened out of the narrative, however, when she arrives at the family home of another escapee, only to witness the woman being cast into an alley by angry brothers. We now follow the pregnant Pari (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani), whose husband was killed in prison, as she seeks an abortion. A nurse friend who has recently married a doctor refuses to help, lest she risk upsetting her new husband. When Pari leaves the nighttime hospital, she meets a woman in the process of abandoning her toddler near a police station, unable to care for the child. The camera's new fascination, this now-childless mother, is coaxed into the car of an undercover vice officer, but she manages to escape the dragnet that has resulted in our final female subject, a prostitute, being driven to jail. The film's last shot, a 360-degree camera pan around the dark cell, reveals some familiar faces.
In The Circle, Panahi stays true to his titular metaphor in more ways than one. Notwithstanding the obvious passage from the suffocating captivity of the hospital waiting room to the final resting place of the prison holding tank, the director also plays on the iconography of roundness and the circle as a feminine shape. Therefore, it's the quadrilateral opposites, rectangles and squares (e.g., thresholds, ticket-counter windows, prison doors), that serve as recurring reminders of authority, framing, and constraint. And, of course, there's the circle as emblem of the life cycle. Panahi's subjects cover all stages: That is, we are invited to consider the plight of the female infant, the abandoned little girl, the lost teenager Nargess, the newlywed nurse, the pregnant Pari, the ill-fated new mother, the mother who abandons her daughter to the state, and the grandmother who laments the problematic arrival of a newborn girl.
But if all this fatalism sounds funereal, it isn't. Panahi's film moves at an infectiously anxious pace, its roving, eye-level camerawork maintaining the energy of an escape-in-progress, even as the narrative never allows that sort of release. And through his poetically candid style, Panahi captures the relentlessness of these women's search for independent safety, and their boundless resourcefulness in service to their own survival. The Circle may end up more or less where it began, but its kinetic swirl suggests the radical possibility of breaking the cycle.
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