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.
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.”
The self-mythologizing author of nine autobiographical bestsellers (one titled How to Shoot Friends and Influence People), Chopper is trapped in the circle of his personality. The portrait of this thuggish celebrity promises to be gleeful, and it is—in a particularly gore-drenched way. A flashback to 1978 shows the newly incarcerated Chopper making his reputation in a Melbourne maximum-security prison by razzing some old-timer, before snapping and stabbing the guy to death. This is a movie where bleeding can be a sound effect, but often it’s obscured by the burble of Chopper’s constant chatter.
Later, Chopper’s dismayed and irresolute mates are recruited to perform a Julius Caesar and stick it to their pal. Blood flows, but this boy is apparently unkillable. He takes eight cuts and remains on his feet, so slimy with gore that the weaker of his two assailants begins to heave. Soon boasting stitches to match his tattoos, the pain-impervious Chopper gets himself transferred to a hospital ward by browbeating another inmate into sawing off his ears. A star is born.
This opening, which occasioned audible heavy-breathing excitement at the screening I attended, is prologue to the comedy that ensues once the monstrous Chopper returns to society. No one seems particularly pleased to see him. “You weren’t thinking of me when you did that,” his junkie hooker sweetheart, Tanya, remarks of his remodeled ears, while his obnoxious old dad goads him into wreaking vengeance on some former associates. To that end, Chopper visits the sleazy disco known as Bojangles and—in a long, well-orchestrated scene of strobe-lit close-ups—proceeds to shoot up the place. The loutish Chopper is not a man to tolerate frustration. He proposes marriage to Tanya but, stung by her refusal (she says she’d prefer to keep whoring), invades her home, punches her out, and head-butts her interfering mother.
A movie of prolonged interactions, Chopper is as visually strident as its protagonist is garrulous. A former director of commercials and music videos, Dominik periodically gooses the action with bits of subjective pixillation or wildly theatrical lighting, but his filmmaking is more impressive for its vivid claustrophobia. The colors are leached; the action is largely confined to interiors with the bilious illumination of a city morgue. Virtually the only exterior is the Bojangles parking lot, where for reasons not immediately apparent, Chopper is embroiled with a hapless petty criminal, whom he shoots point-blank in the head. It’s typical of the movie’s comic rhythms that this death scene features a very long totter, then Chopper’s immediate contrition.
With his metal teeth and deformed satyr-like ears, Chopper is a spectacular lowlife clown—a mix of oafish savoir faire and unpredictable violence—swinging his dick along with his mood. Bana, who appears in nearly every shot, talking all the while, gives a remarkably mercurial performance. Holding forth for TV cameras, he brags that he wrote a bestseller even though he “can’t bloody spell.” Maybe not, but the movie certainly casts one.
This in from our Department of Correction: Two weeks ago, I wrote that Faat-Kine was Ousmane Sembène’s first in the 25 years since Xala with a contemporary setting—forgetting that Sembène’s 1993 Guelwaar, at Film Forum this week, also takes place in present-day Senegal.