In his classic 1950 drama La Ronde, director Max Ophuls used a circular, interlocking plot structure, signified by a carousel, to link the characters–a series of unfaithful lovers–in a circle. Ophuls’ aim was to comment on the world-weary attitudes and casual infidelities of playwright Arthur Schnitzler’s end-of-the-19th-century Vienna, where flirtation and clandestine assignation were evidently high art. The effect is bittersweet and highly ironic, as one partner drifts on to the next, always searching for that elusive frisson–and always ending up back where one started.
Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi employs the same elliptical motif–though without the obvious device of a mocking interlocutor spinning on a carousel–in his new drama The Circle, but in his linked vignettes of a series of unrelated women in Teheran the effect is bitter without the sweetness, and what few ironies there are, are overpowered by the firm, calm, institutionalized oppression imposed on the women of Panahi’s country.
That oppression seems to be complete and absolute. The circle begins in a hospital, where the mother and sisters of a woman who has just given birth to a baby girl are mortified to hear the news, because the in-laws were expecting a boy, and they now might insist on a divorce. As one sister hurries out of the hospital to make a worried phone call, she bumps into a trio of women occupying the phone booth: Arezou (Maryiam Parvin Almani), Nargess (Nargess Mamizadeh), and Pari (Fereshteh Sadr Orfani), the latter of whom scurries off to rejoin the story later. All three have just gotten out of prison, and consequently they lack the proper ID. This is important because, as Panahi shows us, any woman in Iran can be challenged by any man (even a young boy) for practically any reason, and must be ready to answer close questioning along the lines of: “Who are you?,” “Where are you going?,” and “Do you have any ID?”
So life is a minefield for women in Iran. We might question Panahi’s motives in displaying his country’s glaring social injustices in an internationally distributed film, but from his comments in the press notes he appears utterly sincere. Speaking of his female protagonists, Panahi says, “Their world is one of constant surveillance, bureaucracy, and age-old inequalities.” He goes on to explain the film’s genesis: “One day I noticed a small article in the newspaper: ‘A woman committed suicide after killing her two young daughters.’ There was nothing about the reasons behind the crime or suicide. Perhaps the newspaper did not see any need, since in many communities, women are most deprived. Their freedom is limited to the point it seems as they are in a big prison. This is not only true for a particular class of women, but for all of them. As if each woman could replace another in a circle, making them all the same.”
Indeed, all the characters in The Circle have the same problem–they’re second-class citizens. Beyond the wearing of the chador and the segregated public transportation and school systems, as we go around Panahi’s circle we’re introduced to the grinding pettiness of Iran’s stifling rules for females: no smoking in public. No traveling alone without ID. No legal abortions. Women are subject to searches before boarding public transportation. Women are disowned and thrown out of their homes for breaking the social code. Then there is the constant harrassment of lone women by male passersby (“Hey, you want a ride?”). And the despair of a mother who abandons her young daughter.
Panahi has an unlimited supply of these outrages, and he applies them smoothly, without undue melodrama, as if that brand of oppression is as common as buying a loaf of bread. In the West, one of biggest problems is that no one cares about anyone else or what he or she does; in Iran, it’s that everyone cares–too much.
Ex-cons Nargess and Arezou make a particularly interesting pair. Streetwise Arezou openly bristles at the indignities of life (perhaps that’s how she landed in jail in the first place), dying to sneak a smoke and maneuvering her friend Nargess onto the bus for a promised trip to the country. She knows better. Meanwhile, open-faced, slightly naive Nargess observes with interest the hustle and bustle of big-city life as she pines for her idealized little town of Raziliq, all the while clinging to Arezou for protection and companionship. Her dream is ultimately thwarted by something as simple as two cops checking ID at the door of the bus. Her pleasures are equally uncomplicated and unselfish: buying a shirt–a man’s shirt, gift-wrapped–in a bus-station shop from an obsequious merchant.
Gradually, Arezou disappears and Nargess gives way to characters such as Pari, cast out by her family for the shame of her imprisonment; Pari’s friend Elham (Elham Saboktakin), who’s unwilling to help Pari for fear of jeopardizing her life as a wife and mother with a nursing job; Monir the movie-theater ticket seller (Monir Arab), also a former inmate; and most pathetic of all, Nayereh (Fatemeh Naghavi), an emotionally distraught mother whose only solution is to leave her little girl alone on a sidewalk, watching from behind a parked car across the street as a policeman takes the girl away, presumably to a foster home and a better life.
Panahi frames this cavalcade of misery in the same mock-documentary narrative style he used for his previous films, The White Balloon and The Mirror. Both those movies showed the misadventures of little girls lost in the city, and both took great delight in capturing the rhythms and personalities of Teheran’s streets, but The Circle ups the ante by blaming–always tacitly–the religious dogma of Iranian society for the sad plight of little girls who grow up to be imprisoned women. The film comes full circle in a jail cell with a prostitute (Mojhan Faramarzi) looking out into the corridor and hearing the name of the film’s first woman, Solmaz Gholami, the mother of the unwanted newborn girl, being called out in the police station. Panahi makes sure we never actually see Solmaz Gholami. We’re left wondering just how she progressed from the maternity hospital to the stationhouse. But perhaps we really don’t want to know. We’ve experienced enough bigotry. One could argue that every one of the affronts suffered by the Iranian women in The Circle exists in other countries, including the US, but there’s no denying the deep, ingrained system of social injustice to which Panahi quietly, politely points in every shot of the film. Here it is, he’s telling us. Make of it what you will.