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See 'The Circle' to honor Jafar Panahi, freed on bail

Long after the debate over the films at this year's Cannes Film Festival has quieted, it will be remembered for the role it played in getting a political prisoner out of jail. Jafar Panahi, an Iranian director, had been arrested in March on the grounds that he was making what the Iranian cultural minister considered an anti-regime film about the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. (Panahi supported Mirhossein Mousavi.) Panahi had been invited to serve on the Cannes jury. Festival participants turned his absence into an accusation of injustice hurled at the Ahmadinejad government. Juliette Binoche, who won the best actress award for Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami's "Certified Copy" (a French/Italian/Iranian production, filmed in Tuscany), even used her acceptance speech to plead for Panahi's liberation. Now Panahi is out on bail.

Panahi was celebrated internationally for "White Balloon," which won Cannes' Camera d'Or prize in 1995. But I vastly prefer his 2000 movie "The Circle," which really puts an audience in the shoes -- and more to the point, under the shawls -- of Iranian women caught in age-old traps at the time of the new millennium. (That's Nargess Mamizadeh in "The Circle," above.) We are with these characters -- including the ones we only hear of, never see -- as they dodge police because they lack permits to be in public, and beg for bus fare to get out of town; as they flirt with or practice prostitution; and as they wrestle with the fate of daughters who are sure to disappoint families and a society in which men rule.

This movie is a terrific social drama, the work of an artist, not a special pleader. Panahi generates understanding and intense sympathy for females who are unattached, and thus vulnerable. In the Iran of this movie, single women are caught in a series of Catch 22s. They are unable to live in a city without family backing or a student ID card, and unable to leave it without family backing or a student ID card. They are forbidden abortions and denied help for children.

The movie's pull also comes from the modulated energy and intuition of Panahi's fluid, humanistic style: his characters' shifts of expression have the potency of other directors' explosions. There's a conceptual beauty to the way he runs his cast through spiraling corridors or byways. And the movie is leavened with the tough, wise humor of a hardscrabble milieu. Indeed, in its own straightforward way, the movie carries the black-comic charge of a feminist Kafka: it's a nightmare of misplaced authority that shows women trying to scurry unseen through a world where every man is a potential tyrant.

The film was put out on DVD in 2001, and though it's currently out-of-print, you can still find it on-line and at cinema specialty stores. Have you seen any of Panahi's film (such as his other major international release,  "Crimson Gold")? Many Americans complain when politics enter our movie events. Would they feel the same way if it resulted, as it has at Cannes, in the freeing of a political prisoner? 

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