Directed by: Maryam Keshavarz
Cast: Nikohl Boosheri, Sarah Kazemy, Reza Sixo Safai
Running Time: 1 hr 49 mins
Release Date: September 9, 2011 (Chicago)
PLOT: The story of Iranian teenagers Atafeh (Boosheri) and Shireen (Kazemy), who rebel against the censorship and constraints of their country by going to secret nightclubs and starting an intimate relationship with one another.
WHO’S IT FOR? Having some understanding of Iranian customs is likely to be helpful in recognizing the movie’s reflective rebelliousness. The film’s existence is just as bold as its characters’ actions.
EXPECTATIONS: I had not heard much about this film, other than that it was a controversial Iranian film with a lesbian romance in the center of its plot. Though I was encouraged by the apparent praise it received at Sundance, I was still hoping it’d be a little more interesting than the kind of stuff that comes from gay/lesbian cinema.
Nikohi Boosheri as Atafeh: Boosheri spends a lot of her time as a Atafeh, it seems, observing, yet with the same glance. She’s just watching things happen to her and around her. When Shireen is taking pills at a nightclub, she just watches. When her brother is courting Shireen, she just watches, etc. This can work nicely as a metaphor in some cases, but in others it feels like it could even be chalked up to lazy blocking by the director. More than her co-star, she breaks out of her stiff shell for a couple of emotional scenes (such as her final plea to escape with Shireen).
Sarah Kazemy as Shireen: Although she’s equally a part of the lesbian relationship at the center of Circumstance, Shireen seems to just float with the events that happen to her, even when they spark the most outrage in her friend Atafeh. Shireen stands more as representation of innocence than a powerful, dynamic character who can think for herself.
Reza Sixo Safai as Mehman: The film’s best performance comes from Safai, who gives the oppressive Iranian customs a stone-cold, villainous presence that constantly looms over the girls. Mehran also has the most compelling character structure, as he’s an ex-drug user, general troublemaker, who decides that the best way to rebel against his “disorderly” rebel parents is to conform to the rules he once abandoned.
TALKING: With such thoughts on rebelliousness, Circumstance creates a sense of chaos, and a wheel of rebelliousness that doesn’t seem to be leading in any direction. One of the movie’s best lines prominently features its title, and happens during an interaction between Atafeh and her former political activist writer father. After he tells her that he was basically just like her, getting into trouble and testing the limits of government control, she begrudgingly states, “You create this world for us … now we live in these circumstances.”
SIGHTS: While some of the visuals in the movie might be strong in the context of regular Iranian cinema content, they are still marred by a general over-usage of slow motion. In some cases the visual technique just feels gratuitous. Even a game of volleyball is shot at the same speed as a tender physical moment between the two girls. However, the sequences of sexual contact between the two rebellious Iranian girls are still shot with a careful eye, and are more focused on sensuality than anything deemed pornographic (in America, at least). Circumstance pays particular attention not to PG-13 body parts, but faces, and gives its tenderness a unique edge with its recurring close-ups of mouths.
SOUNDS: A mix of Iranian punk and techno is heard during the movie’s scenes of rebellion. There’s even a moment in which Atafeh rocks out to “Deceptacon” by Le Tigre.
BEST SCENE: Circumstance makes one of its more fulfilling political statements in a scene that involves the dialogue dubbing of Gus van Sant’s Milk. Both as a clever nod to gay rights and to general political anger, the scene features the two girls and two guys as they dub in Persian the scene in which Sean Penn’s Harvey Milk says, “I know you’re angry. I’m angry too.” We see them stand in front of a big screen, as their bodies are blanketed by the image of Sean Penn’s speech. It’s essentially the movie stating its thesis, and in a way that’s more clever or interesting than just watching its characters break through “morality police” taboos. While the whole movie might focus on stirring debate over telling a solid story, this is a moment in which Circumstance’s inspiration comes off as truly artful.
ENDING: “We can leave!”
QUESTIONS: What’s exactly “taboo” in this movie, and what is not? Is there a chance that this movie’s political nature could help nudge it towards a “Best Foreign Language Film” nomination?
REWATCHABILITY: Circumstance was a bit slow during its first viewing. Now that I’ve thought about it more and have digested it, I’d be curious to see how it makes me feel when I possibly watch it with a friend a few months down the road.
The politically charged Circumstance loses a bit of its speed from its two lead performances, neither of which carries any spectacular emotional weight (or look their supposed age of 16-ish). The two work best in the very last scenes of the movie, in which the dire need for a change feels the most desperate.
Circumstance has some dull moments that can contribute to a sludgy 109-minute experience. A sequence in which Atafeh’s family takes a trip to the beach feels overlong (especially with the aforementioned slow motion). Some of the interactions between Atafeh and Shireen lack any bite from dialogue or emotional strength. Some sequences, (like long trips to the club) feel like they are more focused on stirring the pot with risqué visuals than providing the story a steady storytelling speed.
The political anguish of this controversial Iranian film is more pronounced and effective than its drama, whether you choose to take it as a romance being pulled apart, or as two repressed friends struggling in a manipulative environment. Circumstance is the type of the movie where you’re likely to feel its outlying outrage more notably than its central heartbreak.
FINAL SCORE: 6/10