Born Criminals

On the strength of his three features, Jafar Panahi would seem the most successful popularizer of Iranian directors. His much feted, neo-neorealist White Balloon (1995) was the least cloying of Iran's child-centered films; The Mirror (1997) added self-reflexivity to the mix. With The Circle, which won six awards (including the Golden Lion) at the last Venice Film Festival, Panahi addresses the central concern of much recent Iranian cinema, namely the "woman problem."

A onetime protégé of Abbas Kiarostami, the 41-year-old Panahi makes crowd-pleasing art movies that are both abstractly metaphoric and powerfully concrete, characterized by a combination of emotional restraint and formal intelligence. The White Balloon and The Mirror each celebrated a young girl's persistence and frustration; The Circle depicts a rondo of desperate women (mainly nonactors), most newly released from prison into what amounts to a patriarchal police state. The charges are never specified. The inference is that to be a woman in Iran (scarcely the most oppressive of Islamic states) is a crime in itself. The Circle's only real characters are female; the men they encounter are faceless obstacles or enforcers.

Looking to map this existential condition, The Circle begins with a blank screen and cries of a woman in childbirth. Thanks to the miracle of ultrasound, everyone is expecting the baby to be a boy, but instead . . . There's much consternation, even fear, on the part of the maternal grandmother. The in-laws, she wails, are sure to demand a divorce. In the first of many images of a woman enclosed, she's framed by the small window of a hospital door. Without further explanation, Panahi shifts his attention to three women in the street. One is detained and arrested as her companions cower behind a car to elude the police. The elder of these two arranges to buy the younger, Nargess, a teenager with a bruised face, a bus ticket back home. Would that it were so simple.

No exit: Maryam Parvin Almani (left) and Nargess Mamizadeh in The Circle
photo: Winstar
No exit: Maryam Parvin Almani (left) and Nargess Mamizadeh in The Circle


The Circle
Directed by Jafar Panahi
Written by Kambozia Partovia
Opens April 13

Written and directed by Andrew Dominik, from the book Chopper:From the Inside, by Mark Brandon Read
First Look
Universal Focus
Film Forum
April 11 through April 24

Panahi is a consummate urban filmmaker. As in his previous films, his protagonists must navigate the clamorous labyrinth of Tehran. He's also a confident stylist whose intimate, quasi-documentary films are predicated on long takes, a moving camera, and extended wordless passages. (There is no unmotivated music, and the movie has as much ambient sound as it does dialogue.) The few establishing shots and absence of transitions contribute to the strong sense of individual melodrama and isolation.

Indeed, virtually every scene in The Circle reveals some new bureaucratic restriction. Women must dress in a certain fashion, even in a hospital. They cannot smoke in public; they are prohibited from riding a bus unescorted without proper ID. Alone in the bus station, Nargess scurries around, impulsively deciding to buy a shirt, then dodging the soldiers who wander into the store. Such furtive behavior is contrasted throughout with the casual freedoms to loiter and look that are enjoyed by men; it also accentuates the sense of ongoing private dramas unfolding in the midst of the workaday world.

Nargess vanishes into the flux of life, and Panahi picks up on another ex-convict as she is thrown out of her father's home: Pari has escaped from prison, her husband has been put to death, she's four months pregnant and needs an abortion. Before this situation can be resolved, Panahi switches again. As the movie progresses, the characters get successively older, the day wanes, and we are left with the essential unmarried woman under Islamic law, a prostitute.

As is the case with any filmmaker from an insular culture whose work wins prizes abroad, Panahi has been accused of making movies for export. In an interview last fall, the director said that the script for The Circle (which is technically an Iranian-Italian coproduction) required several years to be approved, that even then the movie was completed with some difficulty, that it required major intervention on the part of Iranian filmmakers for it to be entered into competition in Venice, and that it had only been shown once in Iran. It seems to me, as a distant observer, that the ways in which politically sensitive Iranian movies are made must be as Byzantine as the processes that governed the production of critical Soviet bloc movies during the Cold War—involving all manner of patrons and connections and sometimes the mystifications of well-meaning foreign critics.

It is impossible, then, to read The Circle as an Iranian text. Even as film, this long day's journey into night is never entirely comprehensible in its specifics. Or rather, its events are often understandable only in retrospect. Bringing the narrative full circle, from hospital nursery to prison cell, the new mother's name is repeated, somewhat enigmatically, in the last scene. What's consistent throughout is the sense of urgency. Here, as in his previous features, Panahi is a maestro of anxiety. Whatever its political significance, this is a dark, sustained, and wrenching film.

Mark "Chopper" Read, the antihero of Andrew Dominik's powerfully absurdist first feature, Chopper, is another sort of prisoner altogether—as is made clear by the film's opening scene, in which the most notorious of Australian career criminals (played by the popular TV comedian Eric Bana) sits in his cell with a couple of guards watching himself being interviewed on prime-time TV: "I'm just a normal bloke who likes a bit of torture."

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