When the press screening of Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance ended, my friend turned to me and said, “That was good.” I agreed. Then she said, “It was interesting.” I didn’t agree.
I’m no expert on contemporary life in Iran, but I walked in to Circumstance pretty sure that life as a woman under a fundamentalist Islamic theocracy would not be not much fun—all the more so for women who are attracted to other women. Whaddya know, I was right. Circumstance (opening September 16 at the Uptown Theatre) dramatizes this truth in a series of vivid scenes that are almost cell-like in the way they’re self-contained set pieces. An alternate title for the film could be 100 Short Films About Teen Lesbian Love in Iran. While the scenes are uniformly accomplished and the film often has a terrible beauty, the individual parts don’t add up to a compelling drama.
Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are 16-year-old schoolgirls in Tehran; early in the film, their close friendship becomes a romantic, sexual relationship. Women sexing women is obviously verboten, but it’s just one of a long list of forbidden activities in which the girls and their wealthy friends secretly participate: among them wearing revealing Western-style clothes, drinking/doping, and heterosexual canoodling. When Shireen’s older brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) returns from drug rehab, he falls in with corrupt authorities and becomes a menacing presence with cruel designs on Shireen.
Though the film’s style and setting are distinctive, in essence this is a basic forbidden-love melodrama. Kashavarz’s screenplay gives the characters scraps of development that are left frustratingly hanging. What’s Mehran’s relationship with the possibly gay fundamentalist he falls in with? Why is it so much harder for the outgoing Shireen than Atafeh to make a crucial decision about their shared fate? A young man appears, speaks of reform and freedom, and enlists the girls and their friends to dub Persian soundtracks for Milk and Sex and the City—then disappears. I appreciate Kashavarz’s impulse at storytelling restraint, but if we’re going to be asked to connect our own dots, we’re going to need a few more dots.
Both Boosheri and Kazemy are good here, but Boosheri makes the stronger impression with a better-defined character. Kazemy is dropped into a stew of conflicts and compromises that give her character so many dimensions, we have no idea where her head is at any given time; Safai has the same dilemma with his tortured character. Helping to anchor the drama are Soheil Parsa and Nasrin Pakkho as Atafeh’s parents, liberals who get by on the basis of their faith that eventually the cloud of repression will lift.
The poster for Circumstance touts a quote from the Boston Globe calling the film “outrageously sexy,” but I didn’t find that to be true. This movie isn’t about sex, it’s about freedom and constraint: when a girl fondles another’s breast, or a man thrusts into his wife, they’re not saying I want to do this but rather I can do this. To love with desire rather than fear is a luxury these characters—and their untold thousands of real-life counterparts—are too rarely permitted.