The Circle Review

The story: The film opens on a birth in an Iranian hospital - a woman is panicking as her daughter has just given birth to a girl; "the in-laws are going to be furious" she mumbles as she leaves the place furtively. The camera spins round to leave this story to follow two other women, Arezou and Nargess, who are desperately trying to leave Teheran: just released from jail, they have nowhere to stay and are likley to return there if they don't find shelter before the end of the day. Finding help or money is virtually impossible as the police is likely to arrest them at any minute on some trumped up charge and everyone else wants at all cost to avoid contact with them due to their spell in prison. Nargess desperately wants to return to her hometown in the countryside where she feels that both Arezou and her will be able to taste true freedom but how can they get there with no money and no travel permits?

When I first went to see The Circle, I was expecting a similar experience to what I had when I saw Loach's Ladybird Ladybird or Malle's Au Revoir Les Enfants but interestingly The Circle glimmers with some faint hope which the viewer can use as an emotional raft. Panahi believes this film is not really a film of anger but rather a statement of reality; a reality that the rulers of Iran are too willing to bury: the film took almost 3 years to complete due to constant setbacks and when completed, the government made it clear to Panahi how much they disliked his film.
The acting is quite natural and realistic with some wonderful composed performances from most of the cast. As the story never focuses on one character for too long before picking up on another, one can only be inspired by the way in which Panahi manages to flesh them out in so little time. The story itself has its flaws but it remains that The Circle fully achieves what it sets out to and can't be criticised for that. The cinematography, though resolutely low-key, is quite magnificent - moving between circular movements to long fixed shots, it underlines the characters' psychological state: from scaling the perimeter of "the circle" to the motionless helplessness which comes with the discovery of the limits of the circle. In it's stark unpolished nature, The Circle doesn't try to tug at easy heart-strings but rather tries to give us the subjective experience of these women's lives. Although probably not the best film that Panahi has made (topping The White Balloon is no mere feat), The Circle is quite a tour-de-force in its own right.
The DVD:
The image: The image sadly is quite a letdown: AE seem to have taken the Tartan cost-cutting method, using a cinema print as a master. This is an absolute no-no for three main reasons: a cinema print is far too contrasty for viewing on a TV screen, the master will probably be quite grainy and scratchy and if the film is subtitled (as this one is) the subtitles will be the incorrect size, impossible to read at some points and impossible to turn off. Of course, this film suffers on all the three levels: from the outset one can notice white blemishes/scratches in a scene which is supposed to be pitch dark and especially during the day sequences the subtitles verge on being illegible. These problems remain throughout the film but thankfully artificating is rarely seen.
The film is in the aspect ratio of 1.75:1 (according to this it should be 1.85:1 but I think 1.75 is in fact correct); however, for some reason, AE have chosen to not use any anamoprhic enhancement which is another bad mark for the image. Globally quite a dissapointing effort from AE on this one.

The sound:Although it was recorded in mono, we get a DD 2.0 mix - however this seems to remain mostly monaural. The sound is OK but has it's moments of sounding a little weak - of course this may be due to the original material.
The menus:
These are set against an excerpt from the film but annoyingly kicks into the film after about a minute. Still they do their job and are quite nice on the eye. A good addition.

The extras: We get the film's trailer which is adequately transferred and the compulsory filmographies. We do also get a very interesting written interview with Jafar Panahi which is not even mentioned on the cover - in this interview he discusses the making of the film, the meaning of it, his reason for making it and how it was received in Iran and abroad. This is an excellent addition to the film and helps us gain insight into the situation in Iran; however, only view it AFTER the film as there are some spoilers contained within it!
Conclusions:It's a shame the image is such a letdown as this film deserved much better. At least the inclusion of the interview with Panahi offers some consolation but when one is paying around £15 for a DVD one can at least expect a better image than video - something this barely offers...

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