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.