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The Mirror  (Jafar Panahi) 1998 / The Circle (Jafar Panahi) 2001

Though heís clearly no Makhamlbaf or Kiarostami, director Jafar Panahiís work appears to be some of Iranís most ambitious. His two most recent films to receive American distribution, The Mirror and The Circle show that, despite his ambition, he is not the most consistently successful of the countryís auteurs. The Mirror, which is the tries for more and succeeds at less than The Circle, is the earlier of the two films. It follows a young Iranian girl as she attempts to get home alone from school after her mother fails to pick her up at the end of the day. The film is the same sort of narratively minimalist, child-focused tale as the Iranian films Children of Heaven or Panahiís debut The White Balloon, and for the first half of the picture, the focus seems to be on showing us the country and its people from a naÔve perspective. This is relatively effective, but not for a moment does the presence of a child guide make it feel like anything less than a political film. This is especially compounded by the presence of characters such as an elderly woman on a bus who complains about the treatment of elders in the nation, and the repeated times the film raises the issue of sexual segregation.

After about forty minutes of this, the film does something radical. Mina, the young actress that has been playing the little girl suddenly removes the cast that has adorned her arm as well as her sari, and says that she doesnít ďwant to act any more.Ē A boom mike swings into the picture as the filmís faked reality shatters. Suddenly, she begins sulking and says she wants to return home to attend a birthday party. Panahi seems to be suggesting that even though the film seems to be no longer fictional, the facts havenít changed much. Unfortunately, this ployís execution doesnít live up to the brilliance of its initially jarring unveiling. At the moment when the fourth wall breaks, the film stock changes to one that hasnít been color corrected. After a long, singular shot in with this more realistic feeling stock, however, the film returns to its original look. A handheld camera replaces the more formalistic compositions of the first half as the crew scrambles after Mira (who is still wearing a microphone), but the shift in color dulls the feeling that reality is being presented. The charade becomes somewhat useless because of this, and much of the filmís second half feels more like a repetition of the first instead of the validation of it that it wants to be.

Panahiís The Circle is not as fundamentally flawed as The Mirror, but that might because it never attempts such astounding narrative leaps. The film, like Richard Linklaterís Slacker, shows a series of stories that flow into each other as the characters in them pass by each other. The theme here examines the limited rights that Iranian women have, and thankfully Panahi doesnít filter his message through a childís perspective this time. The circle that the title refers to is the loop that casts imprisoned women in that country in an incessant battle with the law. After being released from jail, it is only a matter of time before they end up in prison again, since they are not permitted to travel or seek employment without a manís permission. Whatís more galling is that their crimes are as petty as smoking in public.

The directorís style is consistent with his theme. He uses tracking shots to physically connect his characters to one another and circular pans to visually illustrate his thesis. The filmís main problem lies within that thesis itself. Since it only explores a small segment of the female Iranian population, its attempts to define the entire nationís female experience in the country feel too comprehensive for their own good. The film seems to shoehorn its characters stories into its metaphor instead of making their plight seem to naturally flow into one. In both cases, if Panahi was not so obsessed with being all-encompassing in his storytelling, he might be a much better filmmaker.  Still, both of these films are prime examples noble filmic failures. Itís almost always far better to see a director stumble when attempting to show a political plight or trying to reinvent the form than when making a facile, sentimental work, and itís representative of the countryís strong cinema that an innovator like Panahi does not quite embody the cutting edge of Iranian cinema.

The Mirror ***

The Circle ***1/2

12/02/01   

Jeremy Heilman