THE PROBLEM WITH Iranian cinema—often insular, ruminative, and austere—is that it can be such a downer to Western sensibilities. Nothing much generally happens; and when it does, it tends to be bad. No matter how much acclaim goes to directors like Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Silence), their movies can seem like opaque parables, so carefully crafted to avoid government censorship that narrative engagement gets lost. Where's the story? The central character and conflict? Yet the very fascination of the Iranian New Wave has been its obdurate refusal to cater to our Hollywood-softened viewing habits. The results are often equally beautiful and inscrutable.
directed by Jafar Panahi with Nargess Mamizadeh, Maryiam Parvin Almani, and Fereshteh Sadr Orafani runs April 27-May 3 at Varsity
It's something of a relief, then, that the more social-realist Circle—which has been banned in its native country—grabs you with a compelling, apprehensible story. Then, just as you get the gist of it, another story immediately begins. It's a narrative structure familiar from Slacker: One short vignette overlaps with the next, which the camera then follows until another intersection. (Don't worry too much about character names or individual actresses, most of whom are nonprofessionals). In the course of a single day, we venture from hospital waiting room to crowded bus station to empty sidewalks outside an opulent hotel. Some eight different women hold our attention—one a new mother (whose screams we hear, whose face we don't see), two of them ex-cons fresh from jail (Nargess Mamizadeh and Maryiam Parvin Almani), one a prostitute, another a nurse proud to have married a doctor.
What do they have in common? Like the three female subjects of Marziyeh Meshkini's recent The Day I Became a Woman, they're all subject to the cruel, inflexible patriarchy of conservative Islam. (Here, however, the director is a man, Jafar Panahi, best known for 1995's The White Balloon.) Unlike the dreamily distinct panels of Woman's triptych, The Circle has a consistent, vital, gritty style. Woman is like a nightmare; Circle is all waking horror, and a superior film. Its protagonists constantly worry that the police will check their identity papers and lock them in jail if they're not properly escorted ("Without a man you can't go anywhere"). They can't even smoke in public.
Needing an abortion, one woman (Fereshteh Sadr Orafani) escapes her outraged brothers and father only to be rebuffed by an old prison pal. Her desperation echoes the other women's insoluble dilemmas until The Circle oddly recalls Thelma & Louise (also a downer). Similarly, in this bleak, outstanding film, there's no place for women to run—because, says one toughened moll, "Everywhere is the same."