Iranian director Jafar Panahi started his career making an innocuous little film called The White Balloon about a young girl who wants a goldfish for the New Year. Now, with his third film, The Circle, he has moved on to a much more serious topic about the status of women in Iran.
The basic story of the film is about a group of women who have escaped prison. What's evident from the beginning is that eluding the police after a prison break is tough enough but when it's compounded by the fact that the prisoners are women living in Iran it is virtually impossible for them to succeed.
The basic conflict of the story is that each of the women attempts to fit back into society or accomplish some goal before their inevitable trip back to the brig. One wants to get to a faraway home, one needs an abortion and another just wants to fix things up with her loved ones. As the story continues other women – who may or may not have served time – are introduced. As the film continues each of the women face difficulties that women in the West rarely if ever encounter. For instance, women cannot travel around without the escort of a man and they cannot do much without an ID - and if they break either of these laws they are often considered either homeless riff-raff or prostitutes.
The film has a loose structure, which starts in a delivery room and segues out into the street where we are introduced – cinema verité documentary style – to three women who are crowded around a phone booth. From here the film follows two of the women and then eventually just one of them. Like the classic 1950's French film La Ronde the narrative focus peels off from one character to another in an almost random fashion. Although this may seem confusing it is a good way to unify all the characters under one theme and under Panahi's direction it is brilliantly done. And by the end of the film each of the characters and their situations come together full circle.
The Circle is both a metaphor for the plight of women and a specific story about individual women who really have the deck staked against them. The performances are great considering that only two of the actors are professional. But, then again, Panahi's style is more conceptual than character driven so the characters – who are mainly distressed women – have to look the part and they do.
The film is presented in 1.85:1 and looks good half the time and fair the other half. Some of the reel changes are really noticeable. Early on the print goes from a sharp and clear image, with good contrasts, to a bluish image with a darker contrast. There are also white splotches scattered throughout the image. But the transfer seem to be fine and there is very little compression noticeable. Due to the documentary-type subject too, the image faults are almost welcome since a glossy look would look entirely wrong.
The DVD's sound is presented in stereo and the language is in Farsi. There is no musical score or much of any foley-type sound. Instead, the film relies on natural sounds such as ambient street noise and people talking. It sounds very good even if you turn it up, which not many people will need to do.
There are a modest amount of extras that have become the standard on foreign film DVD's. Including two trailers and web links. There is no commentary but there is a very good 20-minute interview with director Jafar Panahi. In it he talks about the actresses, his narrative content and the shooting style he used in each section of the film. The interview is so informative about the film's form and content that it made me want to go and watch it again to appreciate the film's subtle and not so subtle style. Included also is The Women of The Circle which features a screen for each of the women characters. It's not a filmography but instead a description of eight of the film's women characters. It's a bit helpful if you find the film confusing - although there is one minor photo description mistake. The film has yellow subtitles, which can be removed and there are 12 chapters.
The Circle is one of the best films of 2001 and like most of the good films from Iran over the years it is a politically and socially viable one. It is also a sober (or bleak) film since the director pulls no punches with his message. In other words, he totally avoids a satisfying Hollywood-type conclusion. The DVD looks and sounds good and the extras are worthy.