Forbidden love in today's Iran
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Sep 09, 2011
Revolutions large and small make themselves felt throughout "Circumstance," Maryam Keshavarz's sensuously subversive directorial debut about forbidden love in contemporary Tehran.
So taboo are the film's plot points - illicit house parties, alcohol, drugs and a lesbian affair - that Keshavarz had to film "Circumstance" in Lebanon. But she still vividly conveys Iranian culture at its most radically bifurcated, where head scarves and public shows of piety may rule the day but far less orthodox impulses take hold in the shadows.
Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) is a vivacious 16-year-old whose prosperous family has just welcomed her older brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) back to the fold after a stint in rehab. When Atafeh brings her schoolmate Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) along on a beach weekend, their close friendship blossoms into something more. As the two young women explore the giddy pleasures of first love, their playful, sensuous affair looks like any other teenage fling. But in Iran - where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once famously insisted there is no homosexuality - Atafeh and Shireen's blissful brush with romance, fueled by pop music, pirated movies and the thrill of the illicit, brings them threateningly close to Iran's ruthless morality police.
"Circumstance" has its share of awkwardly soap-opera moments, especially fantasy sequences involving Atafeh and Shireen that are heavy on close-ups of glossed lips and fingertip caresses. But like Bahman Ghobadi's "No One Knows About Persian Cats," "Circumstance" offers a rare glimpse inside a closed society that, for all the forces controlling it, still sizzles and seethes with cosmopolitan life (all the while dodging the state's weblike surveillance network). Keshavarz has cast mostly newcomers with surprisingly effective results, especially the gorgeous Kazemy, whose somber beauty and quiet focus give her character the gravitas she deserves.
As the daughter of political journalists who were killed by the theocratic regime, Shireen knows all too well the dangers that Atafeh takes in laughing stride. But the most crucial scene in "Circumstance" occurs between Atafeh and her father, who reminisces fondly about the Islamic revolution before she reminds him of the repression that her generation now suffers as a result. That's just the most explicit of myriad contradictions that "Circumstance" brings to light with nuance, sensitivity and even wit - as when Shireen and Atafeh help a friend dub a bootlegged print of "Milk." The personal is political everywhere, but maybe especially in Iran, where youthful dissent is more likely to find a home on the dance floor than on the streets. For progressive change to take hold in Iran, "Circumstance" suggests, a new generation will need to harness both.
Contains sexual content, profanity and some drug use. In Farsi with English subtitles.