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[whitespace] 'The Circle'
Dialing for Delivery: Maryiam Parvin Almani, Nargess Mamizadeh and Fereshteh Sadr try desperately to ring up some help in 'The Circle.'

Tightening 'Circle'

Life is a constricting noose for the Iranian women in 'The Circle'

By Richard von Busack

IT SEEMS the very best Iranian films are distinguished by being banned. Even Gabbeh, Mohsen Makhmalbaf's gorgeous 1996 folktale about the carpet-making skills of nomads, was banned. The Circle, directed by Jafar Panahi, is another forbidden film. It dispenses with the eminently exportable poor kids in Panahi's The White Balloon, returning instead to state-of-emergency moviemaking like Open City. Panahi takes his structure from Max Ophuls' La Ronde, but to put it mildly, this merry-go-round of life is anything but cheery.

Over the credits, we hear the screaming of a woman in labor. The opening shot is of a hospital door through which a nurse delivers the bad news: the baby is alive. It's alive, and it's a girl, contrary to what the ultrasound had shown. The female relatives, veiled from top to toe, react to the catastrophe: the mother will surely be divorced. As the worried grandmother of the group runs off to go rally the rest of her family, we pick up a different story outside. Orozou and her friend Nargess are hiding. Just out of prison, the women have no money and no identity cards. They can't rent a hotel room, and they can't travel out of the city. All they can do is hide from the police, who are everywhere.

From there, The Circle passes the baton to a different series of women. These include a mother abandoning her daughter at a newsstand in hopes of a better life for the little girl. Another episode has a female ex-con trying desperately to get an abortion from an old friend, a nurse who is trying to hide her sordid past from her fiancé, a Pakistani doctor. Night falls, and the men offering rides and companionship get more insistent. One last member of the circle is a common whore, picked up in a police's checkpoint. While the cops are shaking down her john, she stands, bored, chewing gum. Suddenly, she spots a woman stealthily escaping from the police. She squints and playfully makes a gun out of her finger--"Got you in my sights"--and that's the one sweet moment of dark humor in the film. But this moment evaporates, showing us director Panahi's limits.

Throughout the film, a wedding party appears and reappears. When our prostitute sees the car with its bride and groom, she hangs her head, ashamed that she will never have such bridal radiance. This scene shows how far the Iranian cinema has to go. Knowing what she knows, and knowing what we've seen, only a bitter smirk is right for that bride basking in her fool's paradise.

The slowly tightening circle imprisons these hunted women before they're all united at the end; and the vagueness of the backstories and the identities just adds to the feeling of paranoia. You never even learn what their crimes might have been. Perhaps we're meant to think that their crime was being female. The Circle is fearfully direct, taut and angry. It conveys the almost unbearable sense of being hunted through a strange city by an army of men with God on their side.

The Circle (Unrated; 90 min.), directed by Jafar Panahi, written by Kambuzia Partovi, photographed by Badakhshani and Bahram Badakshani and starring Maryiam Parvin Almani and Mojgan Faramarzi, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the May 3-9, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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