Dramatizing the plight of women living under strict Muslim law, “The Circle” follows Arezou (Almani) and innocent 18-year-old Nargess (Mamizadeh) as they leave an Iranian prison on a temporary pass. Forbidden from traveling alone, the women resort to soliciting a male stranger for assistance in procuring the proper ID. Meanwhile, Pari (Orafai) escapes prison in order to have an abortion. Tossed onto the street by her male family members, she must appeal to two former cellmates for help, both of whom are also caught in a spiral of guilt and societal punishment.
Banned on its release, Jafar Panahi’s “The Circle” speaks to the limits of freedom on women living under a senselessly cruel theocracy. Shot with impeccable simplicity, like so much of recent Iranian cinema, this heart wrenching story of women forced onto the streets due to oppressive patriarchal norms manages to achieve a universal human vision, largely through the affecting performances of its non-professional main actors. Whether seen as a slyly damning political statement or a latter-day example of classic neo-realism, “The Circle” is an enthralling, powerfully realized drama.