A heartening glow of light emerges from one of the world’s darkest countries. Iran’s “The Circle,” the grim tale that — to everyone’s surprise — won the top prize at the last Venice Film Festival, is hard to call a feminist movie. Women in it occupy such a miserable social position that the word “feminist” hardly does it justice.

The film begins in total darkness. As the titles flash on the screen, we hear the bawling and shrieking of a hospital delivery room. We then, as the cries of a newborn are heard, see only the back of a middle-aged woman asking how the delivery of her grandson is proceeding. She learns that her “adorable little grandson” is, in fact, not a grandson but girl — and so low is the position of women in Iranian society that she is panic-stricken and more or less disappears, convinced that her son-in-law’s family will disown her daughter for not having produced a son.

The film moves on to a group of chadoor-clad women, freshly released from prison (for minor crimes never specified). Within minutes one of these women is stopped in the street by a militia patrol, which is a signal for the other two women to depart in haste. We follow them as the older of the two manages to collect money, which she gives to the younger to buy a bus ticket to a remote country village, where she hopes to find “peace.” The older prefers to take her chances in the city.

The ticket seller at the bus station first refuses to sell the girl a ticket because she has no identity card with her, then takes her word she is a student and sells her the ticket. On arrival at the bus, the girl suddenly remembers she has a shirt to buy, which she proceeds to have gift-wrapped. On her return to the bus, she sees that the militia is checking all boarders and she melts away into to the crowd.

We next return to the woman who gave the girl the money for the bus ticket. Or rather, we return not to her but to the woman she has been looking for — and to her father, who says he has disowned his daughter and slams the door in her friend’s face. A few minutes later we see the “disowned” daughter slipping out of the house to find a woman who can tell her in what hospital yet another friend is working.

In reply to a casual question about her husband, the woman replies he was executed. “They let us spend his last night together,” she adds bitterly. She hopes her friend in the hospital can arrange an abortion for her. She is four months pregnant. Regretfully the friend explains she can do nothing for her and, besides, to obtain an abortion a woman has to get her husband’s permission. “But he’s dead!” the woman exclaims. “Then you’ve got to get the permission of both the fathers!” she is told.

The film follows her as she meets a mother who is deserting her little daughter in the street. “The state will look after her better than I can,” the woman says tearfully. A little later this despairing woman witnesses a militia roadblock checking all cars, asking for IDs for any driver with a female passenger. One woman, boldly made up and chewing gum, is arrested, while the man driving her is let off with a reprimand as he pleads he was only giving her a lift, nothing else. She is arrested, not him.

Put into a prison cell, the woman looks about her and we see most of the women we’ve encountered earlier in the film crouched on the floor, including the young woman from the bus station, still clutching her gift-wrapped package. The film goes to black in answer to a query if a woman (identified in the first scene as the mother of the newborn daughter) is there. We have come full circle.

“The Circle” appears to indicate a remarkable shift in the attitudes of the rulers of today’s Iran. What is truly amazing is that Tehran not only allowed this film to be made, but that it sent it with its blessing to the prestigious Venice Film Festival where, perhaps most amazing of all, it won the festival’s top award — the Golden Lion. Perhaps equally surprising, its director Jafa Panhi is being allowed to travel to the States for the New York opening of his film.

Recently the new Minister of Culture Ahmad Masjed Jamei, considered a reformist, declared, “Social messages are given out through our cinema.” He added,”Films are having a strong effect.” Just how much of an effect remains to be seen.

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