An Iranian-based film hardly seems the setting for a sexy romantic drama about two teenage girls who fall in love with one another, but Circumstance relishes its taboo topic, the very camerawork oozing with sensuality. Circumstance is a beautiful and alluring film, one that works on many levels, painting a picture of repression while also focusing on a non-traditional love triangle.
Circumstance is about best friends Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy), who are just discovering their sexuality. The products of affluent and liberal households, the girls spend their nights in nightclubs, dreaming of a more open society, but also about sex, alcohol and other things teenagers think about. Atafeh and Shireen soon connect on a more physical and emotional level (interpretation: lesbians!), but must keep their relationship secret. Meanwhile, Atafeh's brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) is going in a different direction, accepting more traditional Islamic values that put him at odds with his rebellious sister, and his family. He too is attracted to Shireen, and is intent on making her his wife.
The movie is incredibly sensual, the camera itself practically lusting over the two first-time actresses as they interact with one another. And yet the film is never exploitative, its slow pans across the girls' legs and bodies and lips essential to tap into their minds and emotions. As their feeling blossom, the film resonates on an emotional level, allowing the audience to feel what they're feeling. Oftentimes, they don't even understand their feelings or actions, and writer/director Maryam Keshavarz relays the same mixed sentiments to the screen.
It's Circumstance's ability to connect on this level that makes it so good, but even on a literal plain the movie is engaging and powerful. Keshavarz at once steers her characters toward liberation and utmost repression, their relationship necessary and yet increasingly taboo. Their circumstances are not in their favor, hence the title, and Keshavarz slowly spirals her characters down the rabbit hole. You, like the character, don't realize it until it's too late.
Boosheri and Kazemy both deliver fine performances and have great chemistry together. For a long time it isn't clear whether the girls are merely experimenting in any way they can or truly do love each other on a deeper level; the actresses exude the ages of their characters with perfection, their intentions simultaneously naïve yet calculating, adapting to their circumstances yet rebelling against them.
Safai is also quite good, but Soheil Parsa steals the show in a supporting role as Atafeh's father. His character is intriguing; he has created a world for his family where they can be free from the government and Islam's more radical interpretations, and yet that world inadvertently encourages them to press against an inflexible system. In many ways he's the cause of his daughter's indiscretions, and he knows it. This inner conflict simmers in Parsa in every scene, a paradox his character both fears and inherently understands.
The one problem with Circumstance has nothing to do with the final production, but rather the filmmaker's upbringing. I watched the movie assuming it was an Iranian movie made by an Iranian. Keshavarz, as I later learned, is an Iranian-American; her parents are Iranian, but she was born in New York and only lived in Iran when she went to university. She can't nor should be faulted for her background, but it does cast Circumstance in a different light: the movie is written and directed from the perspective of an American, with an overt fondness for Western culture and disdain for most conservative Islamic beliefs. In hindsight, this makes Circumstance less powerful; it's a movie made from the outside looking in, rather than the way it should be. It's hard to know how biased Circumstance is in favor of Western ideals.
Then again, it's pretty obvious.
Despite the film's roots, Circumstance is a great movie with a compelling story, strong performances and fantastic work by its filmmaker. As a romance, as a political drama and as a coming-of-age story it works on many levels, a beautifully crafted, complex and absorbing piece of art.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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