The Circle opens with a shot of an elderly Iranian woman at a maternity ward, deeply saddened by the news that her daughter has given birth to a girl, not a boy. The camera follows her downstairs as she bumps into another of her daughters and gives her the grim news to pass on. Then the camera follows that woman down another flight of stairs, out onto the street, where she bumps into three desperate-acting young ladies at a phone booth. She runs off and we are left watching the three women and their own unfolding crisis.
In one single 5-minute shot, Panahi establishes the structure, visuals, and theme of The Circle. It's the sign of great filmmaking.
Following several different women who lurk in the shadowy corners of Tehran out of fear of being punished for their various infractions against a rigid patriarchal society, The Circle paints a rather hopeless picture of female life in Iran and was subsequently banned in its homeland - not for stating that Iranian women are treated like dirt (the issue has been handled by other Iranian films), but for its frank discussion of Islamic no-nos such as abortion, prostitution, and - gasp - women smoking in public.
Like most examples of contemporary Iranian cinema, The Circle has a rough, verite feel, employing non-actors and location shooting, but Panahi's direction is very sophisticated and assured. The Circle is nothing less than a suspense film, with its troubled women scurrying about like spies - not because they're plotting to do anything dangerous, but because, in the eyes of Iran, being a woman alone is dangerous enough.