Friday, June 17, 2011

The Best Movies I've Never Seen Before: The Circle (2000)

The Circle (2000) ***
Directed by: Jafar Panahi.
Written by: Kambuzia Partovi.
Starring: Nargess Mamizadeh (Nargess), Maryiam Palvin Almani (Arezou), Mojgan Faramarzi (Mojgan - Prostitute), Elham Saboktakin (Elham - Nurse), Monir Arab (Monir - Ticket Seller), Maedeh Tahmasebi (Maedeh), Maryam Shayegan (Parveneh), Solmaz Panahi (Solmaz), Fereshteh Sadre Orafaiy (Pari), Fatemeh Naghavi (Nayer), Ataollah Moghadas (Haji), Abbas Alizadeh (Father of Pari).

Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi currently sits in prison in Iran serving a six year sentence for “assembly and colluding with the intention to commit crimes against the country’s national security and propaganda against the Islamic Republic, “which essentially means criticizing Iran’s government, supporting the opposition in elections and making films critical of Iran and their human rights record. He was also banned from making any films, writing any screenplays, giving any interviews or leaving Iran for 20 years. Even though I am not a huge fan of Panahi’s films, I think every reasonable person in the world can agree that no one should go to jail for making a movie – or simply letting his views be known.

Panahi’s most famous film is 2000’s The Circle. It is a film that is extremely critical of the treatment of women in Iran, and uses several of their stories to highlight this. Taking its cue from Max Ophuls’ La Ronde, the film circles around, with one story leading to the next to the next, before we arrive back where we started.

The movie opens in a hospital where a woman has just given birth to a baby girl. But what should be happy occasion is instead a sad one – the ultrasound had indicated that the child would be a boy, and now the new child’s grandmother is worried that when her in laws find out that the child is a girl, they will want a divorce, or worse. From there, the movie spins out to tell the story of three women who have escaped from prison, their struggles to get out of town to go to one of their small villages, to the story of another former prison who has to escape from her home because her brothers want to “talk to her”, and tries to find a way to get an abortion, to the story of a mother abandoning her daughter in the hope that she will find happiness in a real family, and finally to a story of a prostitute who ends up being arrested, and going to jail where we see all the women we met in the film in one cell – including the mother whose only crime was giving birth to a girl.

Watching The Circle, it is impossible not to feel sympathy for the women that Panahi puts on the screen. For the most part, their only crime is that they are women and have decided to act like women everywhere else in the world get to behave without question. The system clearly holds them to impossibly high standards that they cannot hope to reach, while letting men do pretty much anything that they want to. Panahi uses a mix of professional and non-professional actresses in his film, but I honestly could not tell you which ones are which – they are all raw and real. Panahi’s visual style is simple yet effective – he favors long, unbroken takes, and often employs tracking shots to follow his characters. Panahi fills his screen with the contradictions of modern Iran – showing happiness in the background, while the foreground is full of pain and sorrow.

While I admire The Circle, much like I admire the other Panahi films I have seen (Crimson Gold about a mentally unstable thief and Offside about a teenage girl who wants nothing else but to see the Iran team play soccer, but cannot enter the stadium because she’s a girl), I feel somewhat similar to his films as I do to films like Paul Haggis’ Crash or the entire work of Stanley Kramer. You cannot argue with the films moral viewpoint, and yet I find these films to be too heavy-handed and preachy. Perhaps in Iran, you have to be heavy handed to get your point across, but personally, I would have preferred a little more subtly in the films. He takes his lead from the Italian neo-realist movement of post WWII, much like many Iranian filmmakers do, but unlike someone like Abbas Kiarostami, Panahi remains fixated on telling his stories and delivering a social message. At times, his characters seem more like symbols than real people.

Still, there is a lot to admire about Panahi’s films in general and The Circle specifically. He is certainly an important voice in Iranian cinema and culture. I hope at some point soon, he is released from prison, and can resume his filmmaking career. Something tells me he has more to say than what he done so far. However, as long as the prison sentence and filmmaking ban are in effect, the world is robbed of this important cinematic voice.

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