Pauline Kael (that scamp) once called the Italian neorealist classic The Earth Trembles “the best boring movie ever made.” Today the earth is inundated with Iranian neo-neorealism, a wave of arguably boring good movies with cheapo production values, aleatoric docu-dramaturgy, dewy but not innocent amateur actors and a piercing concern for the downtrodden.

Not that Iran is in a retro film renaissance. The scene’s three heavy directors (Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi) and their progeny bring fresh goodies to the neorealist party: a passion for puzzles with half-matching pieces, an eye for color and design, a love of the found object and the hidden theme. Their what-is-reality narrative games resemble our old-time Modernist religion without actually growing out of it. Iranian film is proof, in fact, that similar evolutionary leaps occur in isolated populations.

It’s also fruitfully incestuous. The patriarch Kiarostami put Iran on the map with movies like Close Up (1990). It could be titled Becoming Mohsen Makhmalbaf–it’s a hall-of-mirrors movie using the people from the real-life case of a guy who was tried for impersonating the country’s second-most-respected director. The hoaxer’s victim told the impersonated director, “Mr. Makhmalbaf, the other Mr. Makhmalbaf was more Makhmalbaf than you are.” Makhmalbaf went on to mess with his own identity in A Moment of Innocence (1996), starring himself and a cop that he actually stabbed as a young revolutionary in 1974. Puckishly, they re-enact the stabbing, coaching teens to play their younger selves. This brilliant film makes the political intimately personal.

But Iran’s biggest hit came from the number-three director, Kiarostami’s ambitious assistant, Panahi. His 1995 The White Balloon avoids bizarro-world storytelling, though it’s written by Kiarostami. Simply, it follows 7-year-old Razieh (the formidably whiny Aida Mohammadkhani), who stalks the streets of Teheran (actually a picturesquely preserved traditional exurb) seeking a fat goldfish for New Year’s Day. She confronts a cross section of society–snake charmers, a tailor, a solicitous soldier. The scenes have an offhand beauty, and the composition is careful: Razieh loses her goldfish money down a sewer grate with vertical bars neatly framed by the horizontal bands of a metal shutter and a patterned brick wall. Panahi is an artful dodger of censorship: If you were a credulous government censor, you might not notice that the snake show is like forbidden cinema (“I wanted to see what it was that was not good for me to watch,” says Razieh), or that her sitcom dad, shouting in the shower that his kid got him soap instead of shampoo, is a tyrant. That soldier who comforts the kid is kind–if that’s how you think of authorities–or unsettlingly intrusive if not.

Panahi blew it with his follow-up, the slapdash slab-of-life drama The Mirror (1997). In it, a girl (Mina Mohammadkhani) wanders a poorly photographed town after her mom forgets to pick her up from school, getting rides in buses and cars and listening to garrulous grownups gab, mostly about social issues. Kiarostami is a virtuoso of the car-ride philosophizing scene; Panahi is unconvincing in impersonating his style. The girl throws a tiff, doffs her costume, shouts at the suddenly visible camera crew, “I’m not acting anymore!” and goes home. The film mumbles itself to sleep. Kiarostami speaks of a spontaneous, “half-created” cinema, but this is half-assed. Maybe Panahi should leave the Pirandello stuff to the other guys.

But then, he should make more movies like his latest, the first big Iranian/Italian neo-neorealist movie, The Circle. (The Italians put up much of the dough; it’s Panahi’s show.) Even if you want to strangle all the critics who sold you on sitting through the more excruciatingly non-goal-oriented Iranian flicks, you may love The Circle as much as I do. Granted, we’ve all cut Teheran’s Tinseltown way too much slack because it’s so noble, the ultimate indie insurgency untainted by the Great Infotainment Satan, issuing urgent bulletins from a cultural battlefront that makes the Bush Administration look like Weimar. But The Circle is great in purely formal terms, quite apart from its searing social/political critique. Panahi is not quite in Satyajit Ray’s league, but now he’s in the same ballpark.

The Circle opens the way The White Balloon did: with credits on a black screen and the scene set by sound–jangly, upbeat street sounds in The White Balloon, foreboding shrieks of childbirth here. A square window in a stark white door slides open, framing a nurse in a white room wearing a white nunlike getup. A woman symmetrically clad in black anxiously asks about her daughter, the new mother. “It’s a girl!” exults the grinning nurse. Disaster! “The in-laws will be furious. They’ll insist on a divorce,” says the new grandma. “They want a boy.” The camera tracks the mourning grandma making her circuitous way past the inquiring in-laws and out of the hospital. It feels like a slow-motion prison breakout.

She passes two actual prison escapees anxiously huddling in the street, Nargess (radiant 18-year-old movie newcomer Nargess Mamizadeh) and the slightly older Arezou (Maryiam Parvin Almani), both draped in black. The camera (wielded by Bahram Badakhshani with more fluid grace than cinematographer Farzad Jadat displayed in The White Balloon) lets grandma make her stately way offscreen and focuses on the young women, picking up their jittery energy. A man in the street sexually taunts them. In the background, cops round up another female; the convicts whip on chadors and hunker down behind a car. They mean to light out for the territory, Nargess’s paradisaical hometown, but they need bus fare. Arezou leads Nargess to a sinister-looking building and has her wait at the foot of a circular stairway; Arezou ascends, goes off with men and returns with cash.

Arezou proceeds to tell Nargess she must make her freedom ride: “I couldn’t handle seeing that your paradise might not exist,” says the despairing Arezou, whose name means “hope.” Nargess (“flower”), boards the bus bound for the central terminal, braving the big city on a solo mission, like the kids in The White Balloon and The Mirror. The implicit feminist revolt in those films is here right out in the open; the soldier comforting the girl in The White Balloon has become the prowling Javerts of the police state. When Nargess impulsively buys a shirt for her hometown beau, the shopkeeper asks a soldier to model it for size; girlish amusement at his discomfiture but also terror of his power play across her face. As she’s about to board the final bus home, she sees police and flees instead.

The focus shifts to the story of an older, sadder, wiser escaped convict, Pari (veteran actor Fereshteh Sadr-Orafai, who also appeared in The White Balloon). For some reason not explained (Iranian directors like to keep you guessing about plot points), Nargess tracks Pari to her father’s house. “Tramp!” yells Pari’s père. “Consider Pari dead!” Abruptly, Pari’s brothers roar up the tiny tunnel-like alley on a motorbike to the dad’s door. The beefy duo, a Tweedledum and Tweedledee of evil, strong-arm their way inside and (if I catch their drift) demand to redeem their sister’s disgrace by beating her bloody. Shouts and scuffles are heard inside; the door bumps open and shut as if in a cyclone. It’s the film’s creepiest scene, with a claustrophobia worthy of Kafka.

Panahi makes a virtue of his limitations, and I’m not sure they’re strictly budgetary or governmental. (The censors never got their mitts on this one.) We should be careful about imposing a Western (or Upper Wide Side) Freud trip on him, as the clever critic Georgia Brown did in teasing out sexual symbols in The White Balloon. Remember what Linus said in Peanuts when someone suggested that because he’d drawn a figure with its hands behind its back, it revealed he had deep psychological demons? “I did that because I myself can’t draw hands.” I think Panahi put the fight behind that door because he couldn’t stage a fight scene to save his life. But he manages to convey conflict in sneakier ways. And compared with the subtle, orchestrated tension of The Circle, joining the fight club would be boring.

Pari flees and looks up her jail pal Elham (Elham Saboktakin), a nurse at a hospital with gates like bars. Pari, it turns out, is pregnant. She can’t get the OK for an abortion from her dad, and her lover was executed, so he can’t sign. But Elham won’t help: She lives in terror enough to begin with, that her doctor husband will find out about her past–she can’t even visit his hometown in Pakistan because they’d check her at the border. The husband appears behind the women’s locker-room door, voicing suspicions. Pari should get lost, fast…

Which she does, and meets Nayereh (Fatemeh Naghavi), who is cowering behind a car watching her blubbering daughter being comforted by strangers–Nayereh hopes they’ll adopt her and save the child from some unnamed calamity. (The unemphatic unspecificity of the disasters in The Circle rescues them from sentimental issue-of-the-weekism.) The little-girl-lost scenes in The White Balloon and The Mirror are retrospectively cast in a stark new light, as well.

Stunned, a zombie, Nayereh abandons her child and walks along a dark street followed by the implacable camera. Her stricken face is a constant; only the background changes. It’s a wonderfully evocative long take in a movie full of long takes, a little like the alley-of-corruption scene at the end of Catch-22, only not pretentious. Nayereh trusts the kindness of a stranger in a passing car. “How about a lift?” Don’t do it, Nayereh, he’s a rapist! But he’s a vice cop instead. She’s booked on suspicion of prostitution.

Gradually, since the first scene, the chase-movie cinematography has yielded to the statelier pace of despair. In the earlier chase scenes, the young women’s chadors billowed in the breeze like Supergirl’s cape; but Nayereh in flight seems as immobile as the statue at Clover Adams’s tomb. A hard darkness slowly grips the film. The cinematic style of The Circle closes in in a way that reminds me of the increasing formal rigidity of each stanza in Auden’s elegy for Yeats. By the end, it’s full of spectral resignation.

The last scene is a dark visual echo of the first. The camera pans across a black circular cell, past the three escapees we’ve met, up to a square window in an institutional door. A man inside asks whether Solmaz Gholami is in there–no, it seems she’s been transferred to another cell. Solmaz is the unseen mother in the first scene (it’s also Panahi’s daughter’s name). In Persian, the name means “eternal.”