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‘The Circle’ is courageous, compelling

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THE CIRCLE —*** 1/2 — Nargess Mamizadeh, Fereshteh Sadr Orafai, Maryiam Parvin Almani, Fatemeh Naghavi, Elham Saboktakin, Mojgan Faramazi, Monir Arab; in Farsi, with English subtitles; not rated, probable R (violence, brief drug use use, mild profanity); exclusively at the Tower Theatre.

It would take a whole lot of courage to make a film as scathing as "The Circle" in the United States, much less in the somewhat less-than-tolerant Middle East.

Small wonder, then, that this drama/sociological study was banned in its home country of Iran, where its searing indictments of the treatment of women there didn't go over well with government officials.

To U.S. audiences, the film might appear to be a little slow, perhaps a bit vague and rambling as well. But those who persevere will be rewarded — the deceptively simple story leads up to an exceptionally powerful ending that will have you mulling it over for days. (Let's just say that there are few American filmmakers who would end a film on such a note, much less make such a gutsy statement.)

As for the film's title, it apparently refers to the basic story structure, which is somewhat cyclical. "The Circle" looks at a day in the lives of a few young Iranian women, including imprisoned best friends Nargess (Nargess Mamizadeh) and Arezou (Maryiam Parvin Almani).

The two women have obtained a temporary prison release, but rather than return when their time is up, they attempt to flee from Tehran.

Meanwhile, their friend Pari (Fereshteh Sadr Orafai, from 1995's "The White Balloon") has even more serious problems. She's also serving a jail sentence but is currently out on release because she is pregnant. Rather than carry the child to term, however, she tries to find a doctor who will perform an abortion.

What she finds instead is Nayereh (Fatemeh Naghavi), a mother who's trying to abandon her daughter on the streets of Tehran.

Like some of his fellow Iranian filmmakers, director/co-screenwriter Jafar Panahi ("The White Balloon," 1997's "The Mirror") favors the non-gimmicky "neo-realist" style, which employs amateur casts and extensive improvisation. (To a degree, it also recalls the style of the Danish "Dogme '95" filmmakers.)

That puts a big burden on his cast, but even the non-professionals are impressive, particularly Mamizadeh, whose expressive face says far more than any words could. (Professional actress Orafai's riveting turn is a close second.)

"The Circle" is not rated but would probably receive an R for violence (beatings, mostly overheard), brief drug use (marijuana) and scattered use of mild profanity. (Though the content is very mild, the film does contain a scene depicting drug use, which would automatically garner an R rating under MPAA rules.) Running time: 91 minutes.


E-MAIL: jeff@desnews.com