The Circle is being released here, as it happens, at the same time as ''The Day I Became a Woman,'' and the double punch of these two remarkably different Iranian films is proof that art with something important to say can not only surmount obstacles (Iran's censorship laws are strict) but also thrive with a creativity born of constriction. Like a woman who finds ways to express her individuality despite the anonymity imposed by her chador, ''Day'''s director, Marziyeh Meshkini, and ''The Circle'''s Jafar Panahi have found ways to report sexual and political struggles through careful structure and imagery. Symbolism has never symbolized so much as in the geometry of these two movies about the lives of Iranian women.
But while Meshkini sets her interrelated vignettes in an exotically isolated, beachy landscape and makes classically Iranian allegorical use of children, Panahi -- former assistant director to Abbas Kiarostami -- circles the heart of noisy, modern Tehran with an informal, documentary-like freedom that is thrilling in its naturalism. Starting in a maternity ward and ending in a jail, each of the women in this looping, La Ronde-style plot is trapped with no exit. Indeed, the women released from prison (the charges are never explained) find that life on the outside is just as confining, maybe more so, as they are further punished by fathers, brothers, husbands, and men on the street.
Panahi found pint-size muses in the little girls who starred in his cheerier previous films ''The White Balloon'' and ''The Mirror.'' In transferring his inspiration from asexual children to sexual adult women, the filmmaker also graduates to a new elegance of vocabulary. The jail itself is round; staircases spiral up and up; the camera moves in long takes, following the women around and around without cutting in. This, ''The Circle'' eloquently suggests, is what it looks like to feel locked in and locked out at the same time.