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The Circle, Squared 

Iranian director Jafar Panahi's latest movie is a stunning piece of film craft, but ultimately seems calculated to appeal to foreign audiences

When I started telling friends, a bit less than a decade ago, that there was some extraordinary filmmaking going on in, of all places, Iran, I would confront stares of puzzlement, followed usually by signs of rapid mental calculation. What kind of good films, people wondered, could Iran possibly be producing? The most ready assumption was that they were dissident in nature, as in Eastern Europe in decades past: films that protested, subtly or not, the authoritarian regime under which they were made.

As it happened, Iran's films were altogether different. They were far more humane and idealistic than most observers would have imagined, enough so to draw regular comparisons to the great classics of Italian Neorealism. Indeed, though often sharply critical of various aspects of Iranian society, their social engagement was upbeat and earnest enough to reflect positively on the Islamic Republic. Still, the suspicion must've lingered in some minds: Didn't Iran really deserve--and need--a cinema of resistance?

Actually, Iran was full of films that fit that description in the 1970s, during the last shah's reign (which was itself heavily authoritarian). In the post-Revolutionary period, the first film that really fills the bill is Jafar Panahi's The Circle, which follows the miseries of several women in succession, observing the ways that prostitutes or women who've been let out of prison, say, are constantly dogged by the police and the vigilantes known as the komiteh, until every street corner and glance seems like a potential trap. Life for women in Iran, the film's central metaphor unsubtly suggests, is a veritable noose of oppression.

This is an audacious film, to be sure. And as a piece of film craft it's nothing short of stunning. As The White Balloon and The Mirror (his best film, and one that, alas, hasn't played the Triangle) prove, Panahi is one of Iranian cinema's master stylists; here, his use of cool colors and elegant camera movements, combined with the strikingly expressive performances he gets from a range of actresses, add up to an entrancing tour de force.

All the same, The Circle left me more ambivalent than impressed. That's because its overtly political tone seems decidedly opportunistic, as if Panahi suddenly hit on a new hook for wowing foreign audiences: appeal to their anti-Iranian prejudices and self-righteous sense of cultural superiority. (Panahi is the one major Iranian director who owes virtually all of his reputation to overseas success.) By contrast, Marziye Meshkini's The Day I Became a Woman, another recent film treating the difficulties of Iranian women, does so with a kind of wit and imagination that suggests it's intended for Iranian audiences--and that women in Iran, though beleaguered, have the power to face their problems.

It's not that Meshkini's film is more hopeful or friendly to the Islamic Republic (it's barely the latter). It's that The Day I Became a Woman seems grounded in Iranian life and art, whereas The Circle seems, at least in part, designed to market Iranian hardship to foreigners. That's a crucial difference, one that defines a new brink in the Iranian cinema's interaction with world audiences.

For anyone who loves North Carolina's mountains, their folklore and music, Maggie Greenwald's Songcatcher will be pure movie manna. (For a second opinion, see Page 40.) Shot in the area around Asheville, the film concerns a female musicologist who, in 1907, goes to the Appalachians to air out her soul and discovers that many of the British ballads she thought belonged to history are alive and well in the remote hollows where city folk seldom venture. Her journey to record and preserve them is part of a larger odyssey that includes confrontations with both the romantic and the violent faces of her new home. But when all is said and done, it's the spirit of the region's rich, vibrant music that gives Greenwald's lyrical film its lingering spell.

Greenwald previously made The Ballad of Little Jo, a revisionist western based on the true story of a woman who posed as a cowboy in the Old West. While the film suggested that a feminist agenda is part of her artistic portfolio, it also demonstrated she's a very canny and resourceful filmmaker who knows that any message must be balanced by dramatic power and human grit. A similar balancing act characterizes virtually every facet of this new film, and it is the key to its adroit, across-the-board success.

In a sense, the shrewdest of Songcatcher's coups may be the way it walks the line separating indie art films and Hollywood. It has just enough of the offbeat subtlety and arcane concerns of the former (let's face it, ol' timey mountain music isn't about to topple Eminem from the charts), and just enough of the latter's eagerness to entertain the peanut gallery and let the eggheads stew. Still, its most impressive feat lies in its balanced view of its mountain characters, who thankfully are rescued from the stigma of Deliverance, but are not patronized or overly sentimentalized in the process. These are hard people living hard lives, and one says he knows full well that the world views them as "ignorant and inbred."

Greenwald likewise strikes a neat balance in the way she draws her heroine, Lily Penleric (Janet McTeer), who is headstrong and intrepid enough to be admirable, yet too high-handed and sure of herself ever to be wholly, conventionally sympathetic. When we first see her, she's about to fly into a fury and depart the northern university where she teaches, having been passed over for promotion yet again. Repairing to "the Southern mountains" (we never get an exact fix on the location, although Asheville is mentioned in roughly the same way that Barney references Raleigh on Andy Griffith; it's the "big town"), Lily visits her sister, Elna (Jane Adams), who runs a remote school with another woman. Almost as soon as she sets down her bags, she hears a local teenage girl named Deladis (Emmy Rossum) belt out a keening, hand-me-down version of "Barbara Allen," a song Lily had considered a museum piece.

Soon, Lily is hauling her heavy, primitive Edison cylinder recorder over the ridges, trying to compile the local balladry for a book that's intended not only to preserve a unique and fragile culture but also to assure her own triumphant return to academia. But there are plenty of obstacles in her path, beginning with the mountaineers' stubborn suspicion of outsiders. While she eventually wins over the likes of Viney Butler (Pat Carroll), a crusty widow with a trove of songs and a banjo to boot, she has a harder time penetrating the bitter shell of Viney's grandson Tom (Aidan Quinn). A veteran of the Spanish-American War, Tom has seen the world down the mountain--"the other side," he calls it--and when Lily tells him she means to "exalt" the local music, he suggests another term: "exploit."

As this indicates, Songcatcher, which is loosely based on the work of musicologist Olive Dame Campbell (the end credits also thank UNC's Folk Life Collection), is smart enough not to ignore some of the ethical issues facing anyone who swoops into a culture determined to extract its artistic ore. As regards the film's other contemporary resonances, a subplot concerning the lesbian relationship between Lily's sister and her companion has led some reviewers to sneer about anachronism and political correctness. But this facet of the story struck me as entirely suitable and credible in itself; it only grates when it catalyzes a cascade of melodramatic fireworks in the final act.

Greenwald's scripting choices, in other words, can be second-guessed at various points. But whatever reservations they produce are minor compared to the film's subtle array of achievements and pleasures.

Besides its gorgeous Blue Ridge scenery, Songcatcher offers acting of an unusually high caliber. McTeer is a British stage actress in the vein of Maggie Smith and Vanessa Redgrave, and her work as Lily is commanding and impeccably shaded throughout. As Tom, Aidan Quinn burrows down into a clotted accent and thicket of sullenness, and comes up with what seems to me his best performance ever. The secondary actors are equally compelling, and I'll bet I'm not the only Southerner who's flat-out astonished to learn that young Emmy Rossum, who seems like she must've been discovered in some deep Appalachian cul de sac, actually hails from New York.

The crowning glory, however, is the music. Greenwald, who's married to the film's gifted composer, David Mansfield, obviously went into the movie determined that it would exalt the music, not exploit it, and this decision forms a crucial, ineffably valuable bond between the writer-director and her heroine. Besides including musicians Iris Dement, Taj Mahal and Hazel Dickens in her cast, Greenwald takes her time when sculpting a scene around music, allowing us to hear full or generous portions of songs such as "Barbara Allen" (Emmylou Harris contributes a modern rendition which runs over the end credits, reminding us of this music's endurance), "Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies" and "Matty Groves." To integrate such large chunks of song into a narrative drama without the result feeling awkward or artificial is a filmmaking feat of a fairly high order. It's only one of the discreet triumphs that make Songcatcher such an unexpected delight. EndBlock


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