The Circle (Farsi)

Over the opening credits of the Iranian film “The Circle,” a woman is heard screaming bloody murder. Turns out she’s just giving birth, not being attacked, but in Iran, we’re soon to learn, it’s almost the same thing. Being a woman in Iran means enduring a lot of pain. Childbirth is just the tip of the iceberg.

It’s easy to see why the Iranian government banned the film. It’s bold and unsentimental in its depiction of the plight of that country’s women. One gets the strong impression this sort of thing doesn’t get discussed in public very much.

“The Circle” gets its title from its unusual narrative structure. First we see a woman deeply disappointed to learn her daughter has just given birth to a girl instead of a boy; surely the new mom’s husband will want a divorce now. As grandma leaves the hospital, attention is shifted to a trio of women she passes on the street. These three, we eventually discover, have just gotten out of prison — broken out, perhaps. Now they live in double-fear: First because they are semi-fugitives, and second because they are women. Women can’t even smoke in public or travel unaccompanied, let alone hide from the cops.

We follow two of those women for a while as they search for another prison buddy of theirs, who has also just escaped. In the meantime, we notice one of the women is bruised. We don’t know why. She wants to get home, but her friend can’t afford to go with her. There is great sadness and frustration, most of it unspoken, in these characters.

Eventually, they narrowly miss finding their elusive friend, whom we do find. She is on the run, too, thrown out of her house not just for going to prison (we never learn for what), but for escaping. She winds up at the hospital (completing the “circle”) and has dilemmas of her own.

I wonder what the reaction to this film would be in its home country. In the United States, the reaction is one of indignation. How dare a society be so unabashedly cruel to its women? This is the reaction intended by the filmmakers, no doubt, but I wonder if Iranians would react that way, since this is their culture we’re talking about. Iranians probably aren’t any better at dealing with self-criticism than Americans are.

Despite the film’s focus on Iranian society, the elements of it that may be unfamiliar to Western viewers are explained. It’s as if the director knew his countrymen had little chance of seeing his work, so he made sure it was relevant to non-Iranians, too. That said, there are some long moments in which the lack of a direct connection to what’s going on is a hindrance. Which is a polite way of saying it gets dull in spots. Nonetheless, it is thought-provoking stuff.

B (; PG, thematic elements.)