The Circle opens on a black screen. We hear a woman's cries. Then we see a close-up of a small, shuttered window. It could be the door to a prison cell. The shutter opens and a nurse's face appears; we realize it's a hospital. The nurse calls to the relatives of Solmaz, who has just given birth. A black-cloaked woman approaches the window. All we see is the back of her head. The nurse tells the woman her daughter has given birth to a beautiful girl. She asks the nurse if she isn't mistaken--the ultrasound showed the baby to be a boy. There is no mistake. "My poor daughter," the woman says. "She will be divorced." Next we see her anguished face, framed by a chador. As the camera winds its way down the stairs and out into the streets of Tehran, we embark on a journey that promises to explain the woman's sorrow.

It is an ominous beginning, but for Iranian director Jafar Panahi, Tehran is a city fraught with danger for women. They can be stopped by police for smoking a cigarette, or arrested for walking around without a male companion. Documentary in detail, the film is nevertheless a touching, intimate portrayal of how women cope in this closed society. It's also a powerful indictment of Muslim fundamentalism, a point which wasn't lost on Iranian authorities. They held up script approval for nearly a year, and then banned the film. However, Panahi managed to host a private screening that led to the film's acceptance at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the top prize.

The Circle is reminiscent of Dariush Mehrjui's Leila (1998), but while Mehrjui--director of the Iranian classic The Cow--follows one woman confronting divorce because of her alleged infertility, Panahi tells the stories of seven women. All of them have been in prison for crimes the filmmaker refuses to name. Clearly, he considers those crimes insignificant in comparison to the crimes committed against the women, nearly all of whom have been rejected by their families. Only Nargess, a girl of 18--her name means "flower" in Farsi--still believes her hometown will welcome her back. Her companion, Arezou, risks everything to send her there. A friend, Pari, pregnant and recently escaped from prison, must flee her home after she is threatened by her brother. She looks to the motherly Monir, a fellow inmate who returned from prison to find that her husband had taken another wife. Monir sends Pari to Elham, a nurse and former prisoner. On the streets, Pari finds Nayereh, a single mother who believes the only way to help her daughter is to abandon her--maybe then she'll be adopted by a woman with a husband. Finally, there's Mojgan, the only woman in the film who isn't fearful. She's a prostitute.

Panahi doesn't blame any one individual or institution for the women's predicaments. In fact, there is no mention of religion. Nevertheless, every frame is rife with images of confinement that point to the restrictions of a fundamentalist society. From the cries and the shuttered window in the opening scene, to the pervasive chadors, we are continually confronted with the women's physical discomfort. In their fear of harassment or discovery, or their inability to walk the streets freely, we become keenly aware of their limitations. Even Panahi's camera seems to entrap the characters--it is often in medium close-up or close-up, framing the women's troubled faces, for a minute or more. Sometimes, the camera stalks the characters in tight tracking shots when you expect it to be in long shot, so that when Nargess runs through the bus station, she doesn't seem to get anywhere.

There is no escape for these women. They traverse an endless, circular labyrinth. Their pathos is so palpable that by the end of the film, you are relieved to meet Mojgan. Her contempt for the man who denies he picked her up for sex, and for the police who arrest her, is like a tranquilizer for all the rage you feel. Panahi is letting you down softly, at least until he's ready to take you full circle, to a prison cell. There, you hear the guard calling the name of Solmaz.

--Maria Garcia