Embattled Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi has been an irritant in the eyes of his government for at least a quarter century, and even after years of off-and-on imprisonment—and the persistent threat of worse punishments—he shows no sign of backing down. The Circle, his third full-length feature, was, unsurprisingly, banned in his home country. Decades after its appearance, it stands as a statement of defiance, a cry of quiet anguish over the way Iranian women are continually oppressed by their government—though it also shows how sticking together is their best hope. Panahi follows a group of women who have just been released from prison, their stories interconnected and ever-shifting. Arezou (Maryiam Palvin Almani) and Nargess (Nargess Mamizadeh) scramble to make a plan for their future—though even more immediate needs, like finding a way to sneak a forbidden cigarette, take precedence. Pari (Fereshteh Sadre Orfaiy), another newly released prisoner, has no home to return to. Her brothers have threatened her, and there’s no one to help her in her desperation—she’s four months pregnant. The Circle is relatively restrained as a piece of filmmaking, though it’s so dramatically textured that you feel something’s happening every minute. Panahi’s camera, more than just reading the characters, practically breathes with them. His empathy is his most effective cinematic tool.
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