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Sarah Kazemy as Shireen and Nikohl Boosheri as Atafeh in "Circumstance"

Roadside Attractions

3 out of 4 stars

Country
USA
Language
English

About a sexy, frank and politically contentious Iranian film, two things can be known for a certainty: (a) It sure wasn't made in Iran and (b) It won't be shown there either. Instead, the writer-director is Maryam Keshavarz, who lives in the United States, who shot the movie in Lebanon using Beirut as a stand in for Tehran, and who assembled her cast from expatriates fluent in Farsi. Yet this is assuredly an Iranian film, for the crucial reason that Keshavarz knows her subject well. She has a truthful story to tell and, unlike the characters involved, the freedom to tell it.

Although the broad theme is universal – a tale of star-crossed love – it's the particulars of the setting and the citizenry that resonate here. Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) and Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) are 16-year-old schoolgirls who share a passion for music and for dancing and, it's soon revealed, for each other.

The former is an orphan whose parents met a dark fate in keeping with their profession – they were writers. The latter hails from an affluent, cultured, Bach-loving family. Her mother is a doctor, her father a businessman, and her wayward brother Mehran has just returned from a stint in drug rehab. Inside their home, the atmosphere is secular and free-thinking, with one exception: To his dad's dismay, Mehran has replaced cocaine with religion, that opiate of the masses, and he's displaying all the zeal of the recent convert.

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What follows stitches a political allegory to a social document, sometimes seamlessly but not always – the fit is occasionally jagged and forced. The allegory is fairly straightforward. Mehran embodies the state, specifically the "Morality Police" who, prone to their own moral lapses, are as hypocritical as they are vigilant. Indeed, the son has furtively installed surveillance cameras right in his family house.

More intriguing, though, is the social document, since its primary focus is on that disproportionately large segment of the Iranian population – young people and the illicit culture they inhabit. So we see Atafeh and Shireen dashing off to an underground club, shedding their chadors to reveal miniskirts beneath and gyrating to the torrid beat of Persian hip hop. Cut to the stark contrast of their outing at a public beach on a summer day, where the men can strip to their trunks for a swim while the women can only look on in envy, obliged to stay hot and dry and completely covered.

Keshavarz keeps alternating between these contrasting settings, the observed proprieties above ground and the unleashed fervour underground. Then she adds a complementing shuffle between reality and fantasy. Dream sequences recur, the better to capture the longings that abound in such an oppressive environment. In his slumbers, Mehran's subconscious enjoys a tryst with Shireen; and the two girls dream of their own steamy coupling. Here and elsewhere, Keshavarz shoots in stark close-ups, punctuated by skewed aerial views, reinforcing an acute sense of claustrophobia that has come to seem surreal.

Other sequences are touchingly real and personal, like the one where Atafeh shares a country walk with her father, who sympathizes with her plight by recalling his own youthful rebelliousness against the Shah. His daughter loves him but the irony cries out, and so does Atafeh: "You created all this for us with that revolution of yours."

Yes, the film ranges widely, and wildly, in tone and style – there's a whole lot packed in here. And as the plot moves toward the climax, where each girl is forced to make a hard choice dictated by her unique "circumstance," that feeling of compression, of so many contradictory urges and needs vying for attention, grows almost overwhelming. Such is life among the young in present-day Tehran, up on the screen for all to see – all but those who most need to see it.

Circumstance

  • Directed and written by Maryam Keshavarz
  • Starring Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy
  • Classification: 14A
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