Within the last couple of years, the plight of Iranian women in a severely patriarchal society has been depicted as heavy-handed feminist tract (Tahmineh Milani's Two Women), Ibsen-esque melodrama (Dariush Mehrjui's Leila), and lyrical, symbolic story cycle (Marzieh Meshkini's The Day I Became A Woman). The common denominator of all these disparate works is their determinist view of womanhood, their palpable sense of the world closing in on their female protagonists, limiting those choices that haven't already been made for them. Less a movie than a political act, Jafar Panahi's artfully artless The Circle pounds this message home with unprecedented directness and, consequently, remains banned by Iranian authorities. A former assistant director for Abbas Kiarostami on Through The Olive Trees, Panahi (The White Balloon) has the same gift for seamless naturalism, but employs it to a vastly different end. Whereas Kiarostami's most recent works, Taste Of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us, are open-ended and invite outside interpretation, The Circle is blunt and unambiguous, with every effect calibrated to make the same point over and over again. A La Ronde of suffering and oppression, the film links one harrowing vignette to the next, opening with the distressing news of a girl's birth at a hospital, then venturing onto the Tehran streets, where women are harassed by policemen and subjected to verbal abuse by male passersby. Without government-issued IDs, the protagonists are basically exiles in their own city, forced to flee from the authorities like characters in a paranoid science-fiction novel. The camera moves fluidly from one story to another: Nargess Mamizadeh and Maryiam Palvin Almani, recently released from prison, attempt to scrape together enough money for bus fare to Mamizadeh's village in Western Iran; Fereshteh Sadr Orfani, unmarried and pregnant, pleads with a nurse to carry out an abortion on her doomed child; a homeless woman abandons her little girl, hoping she'll be picked up by child welfare; and a prostitute (Mojgan Faramarzi) works the streets, risking arrest or worse. With impressive rigor, Panahi aligns himself closely with his protagonists' point of view, revealing the narrow and often tragic paths of Iranian womanhood. But The Circle is also an airless, stifling experience, too neatly drawn up and propagandistic, with none of the subtle, devastating theatrics of Leila or the conceptual ingenuity of The Day I Became A Woman. Panahi makes his point clear, but as Stanley Kramer's or Oliver Stone's careers testify, making points is often antithetical to effective drama.
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