“The Cycle” - Dariush Mehrjui (1978)

Dariush Mehrjui began working on The Cycle (Dayereh Mina, aka Mina Circle) in 1973, but he encountered opposition from the Iranian Ministry of Culture which held up production and public release of the film until 1978. In general, films of the social realism genre have always been rare in Iran, both during the Shah’s era before the Islamic Revolution, when this film was made, and afterwards, as well. Mehrjui had previously run into censorship problems for his productions of Gaav (The Cow, 1969) and Postchi (The Postman, 1972) on account of their bleak depictions of lower-class Iranian life. On this occasion, however, the opposition came specifically from the professional medical community, which was given a rather unflattering portrayal in the film, the subject matter of which concerns the corrupt practices surrounding the supply of blood needed for medical operations.

On one hand, The Cycle could be viewed as a specific portrayal of problems with how medical care was delivered in Iran.  But on the other, as I will discuss below, what transpired in the film serves as a metaphor for a generally pervasive cultural crisis that many Iranians feared was ruining their society.  The cast of the film featured Mehrjui regulars, Ezzatollah Entezami and Ali Nassirian, as well as Fourouzan, who was the reigning queen of the Iranian cinema at the time.  Together, they present a nuanced depiction of how the people lived together in a society simultaneously characterized by courtesy, dishonesty, and compromise.
  • Ali (Saeed Kantarani) is a handsome, but impoverished, teenage boy who has brought his gravely ill father to Tehran in search of medical care.
  •  Ali’s father (Esmail Mohammadi) is suffering from some severe intestinal ailment.
  • Dr. Sameri (Ezzatollah Entezami) runs for profit a blood bank that serves local hospitals.
  • Esmail (Ali Nassirian) works in the maintenance and supplies section of the main hospital.
  • Zahra (Fourouzan) is a nurse in the main hospital.
  • Dr. Davoudzadeh (Bahman Fersi) is a principled doctor concerned about the tainted blood Sameri supplies to the hospital.

The ‘circle’ or ‘cycle’ suggested in the title is said to derive from a line of Sufi poet Hafiz, but it seems to me that it relates to the circles of deception that reinforce each other and draw people deeper and deeper into a corrupted social realm.  Invoking an analogy to the circles of Hell in Dante's Inferno, Ali progressively passes through roughly four levels of corruption as he “comes of age” with modern society.

1.  The Blood Bank
Ali and his father come to the big hospital in search of medical care, but it is after hours and they are not admitted.  However, outside on the street they meet Dr. Sameri, who tells them they can make some needed money by coming to his lab.  When they arrive there the next morning, they see that the lab pays anyone a small fee for donating their blood. The chaotic waiting room of the clinic is filled with peasants, drifters, and drug addicts who live off these payments. It is immediately evident that health safety is being compromised for the money – the donors, who giving their blood far too often, appear variously ill, drunk, and addicted to drugs.  But Ali sees that this is a way that he can make some money.  At this point Ali is still relatively innocent and getting paid for an honest transaction on his part at least.

2.  Ali Meets Zahra at the Hospital
The next day Ali and his father go to the hospital.  While his father is consulting a doctor, Ali wanders the halls and meets Zahra, a nurse who appears to be in her twenties but who takes a liking to the naive country boy, Ali.  In order to expedite the father’s prescribed “electrical” treatment, Zahra lies and tells the medical staff that the father is her relative.  Then she arranges for Ali to get a job in the hospital’s maintenance section by telling the managers that Ali is her relative.  Zahra also sneaks food from the hospital and passes it to Ali and his father camped outside the fence.

Ali now begins working with a maintenance staff member, Esmail, and the two of them are sent out to buy eggs and chickens for the hospital.  Even the experienced Esmail, though, is shocked to see the sight of the chicken factory massively killing little chicks, because, it is claimed, their selling price is fixed by the government and it is too expensive to feed them.  This is one of many small examples in the film depicting a dysfunctional social system.

That evening Ali sneaks over the fence and goes to the hospital looking for Zahra. When he finds her, she enlists his help moving a corpse into the basement. This experience makes Zahra tearful, and when Ali opportunistically makes his move, the vulnerable young woman succumbs to his embraces. This rare (for Iran) scene of amorous passion is very brief, but it is well done.  One could perhaps argue that this is another moment of compromise and corruption, but Zahra’s compromises are invariably humane and well-intentioned – they do not harm others.

3.  Operations at the Hospital
Meanwhile the earnest doctor Dr. Davoudzadeh is frustrated that the hospital is using tainted blood acquired from Sameri’s blood bank.  Sameri uses bribery to secure his contracts, and the only person with integrity and backbone to do something about it is Davoudzadeh.  He proposes that the hospital launch its own blood bank that would operate according to higher standards, and he presents his plan to hospital management.  But bureaucracy and inefficiency are rife throughout the system, and he has difficulty progressing with his plan.

Ali is now sent out with Esmail to sell hospital food to squatters and tramps hanging out in the city outskirts. This is not a charitable operation on the part of the hospital, but is instead an illegal operation on the part of the maintenance staff to pocket some extra money at the government-supported hospital’s expense. Nevertheless the operation serves a useful purpose. The hungry customers are destitute and only charged a pittance for a bowl or rice. By this time, though, Ali is becoming a hardened entrepreneur. When penniless peasants can’t come up with the 2-rial fee for the rice serving, he refuses to feed them.

4.  Ali’s Business
Although Ali is young, it is clear that he is becoming a hustler.  He now realizes that he can recruit the peasants he feeds and deliver them to Sameri’s blood bank.  So he sets himself in his own business.  Of course, many of the recruited peasants are drug addicts and unsuited for donating blood, but that doesn’t stand in Ali’s way.

Meanwhile Esmail sets up Ali’s father with a “borrowed” samovar from the hospital and gets him to operate a tea kiosk (with tea from the hospital) just outside the hospital fence.

Sameri now has more confidence in Ali and starts relying on him for more jobs. In fact Ali is so brash as to suggest a plot to sabotage Dr. Davoudzadeh’s rival blood bank by injecting it with corrupted blood that will kill some patients and thereby destroy his business.  Sameri is so impressed with such cold-blooded thinking that he offers Ali opportunities to join him in further black market operations.

Ali’s preoccupation with Sameri’s tasks is now keeping him away from his ill father’s side. When he returns to the hospital one time with an urgent delivery, he is informed of his father’s death, but seemingly unperturbed, he goes ahead and completes the delivery to the appropriate ward – he is all business these days.  Finally, when he arrives late for his father’s burial, Esmail gives Ali a beating for having neglected his filial duties.  But Ali stands back up and looks set to continue along the path he has chosen.

Although, as I mentioned above, the issues around profiteering off blood bank operations are undoubtedly common to many parts of the world, but the theme of The Cycle is more specifically focused on the perceived deterioration of Iranian society.  At this time of the mid-1970s, money was flowing into Iran from rising oil prices, and many concerned Iranians, like Mehrjui, felt that the import of modernism and money was leading to a rising tide of materialism.  Traditional values and the revered Iranian culture were being discarded as everyone scrambled to cash in.  The government had money, but people felt that it was not being distributed fairly and equitably.  Ali and the people around him were  symbols of the temptations associated with this moral decline.

The hospital doctors are not evil schemers, but they are shown as rather frivolous and somewhat irresponsible.  The hospital administrators are corrupt and have no real mind for the public welfare.  As with so many bureaucracies, each functionary did the least possible within the specified rules of the organization. 

Ali, himself, was not so much malicious as much as he was simply an amoral opportunist.  He learned quickly to take advantage of situations in order to serve his own needs.  This is how one got ahead in the modern world. 

But “The Cycle” is not a simple moral tirade demanding strict honesty.  It interestingly shows more subtle shades of how compromises are made.  Esmail and Zahra were involved in petty corruption, too, but it was only nominal.  In fact in many ways their rule-breaking actions provided useful services to those around them and represented contributions.  But they knew where to draw the line on truly immoral behaviour and were operating in accordance with an ethical compass that was unknown to Ali.

Many educated and concerned Iranians in the 1970s were worried about this apparent deterioration in Iranian cultural values, as symbolized in The Cycle, and they were optimistic that a political revolution would bring changes for the better.  Much like the social participants in the recent “Arab Spring”, they hoped that political change would bring about a more inclusive and socially civil society.  They are still waiting for that transformation.
★★

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