It’s not a good sign when you’re half an hour into the movie and are still unsure who the main character is or what’s going on. By the end, I had a pretty good idea, but to make sure (this was the winner of the Audience Award for Drama at Sundance), I checked out IMDB’s synopsis, which says, “A wealthy Iranian family struggles to contain a teenager’s growing sexual rebellion and her brother’s dangerous obsession.”
Not quite satisfied, I then headed over to the film’s Facebook page, which conversely says that it’s, “the story of two vivacious young girls…discovering their burgeoning sexuality.” Finally, I looked up the film’s actual website, which stated that Circumstance “is a suspenseful tale of love and family upended by obsession and suspicion.”
Evidently, I’m not the only one who was more than a bit confused. Again, not a good sign.
None of them are flat-out wrong, and indeed the movie contains elements of all three—there’s Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) as the two 16-year-olds discovering their burgeoning sexuality; Atafeh’s brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), the former addict who finds a new addiction in Islamic extremism; and their father Azar (Soheil Parsa), the liberal-minded man who disagrees with the old ways but nevertheless must adhere to them for his family’s safety.
However, I think the main character is the country of Iran itself. And that’s also not good.
Granted, director Maryam Keshavarz paints a vivid and realized portrait of the world she grew up in (she holds both an Iranian and American passport and spent time in both countries) with shots from a surveillance camera; with little moments such as when the family’s at the beach and Azar sternly refuses to let his daughter join him and Mehran in the water; and in an inspired sequence where Atafeh and Shireen, along with some of their friends, perform an underground dubbing of the film Milk (the film being restricted in Iran).
The problem is that Keshavarz is more interested in showing us the oppression and restrictiveness of Iranian society than in telling a story. The point is made, and made convincingly, but at the expense of the characters.
For example, the lesbian affair of Atafeh and Shireen occupies most of the screentime, and we’re supposed to fear for their safety, yet the worst that happens is that the two are arrested (for breaking curfew, I believe) and basically let off. Many other characters provide ominous warnings, but we never really see the consequences. I don’t doubt that they exist in real life (in an online Q&A after the screening, Kesharvarz noted that much of the movie was based on real-life), but in the confines of the film, there’s no sense of peril. It may be true, but truth is not necessarily good filmmaking.
Even worse, the most poignant moments that would be better served with simplicity suffer from artistic indulgences and tend to come off as downright cheese. Do we really need to slow down time when the family plays volleyball together? Or see a close-up of Mehran’s mouth when he fixes a busted mike at the mosque?
Or cut the sound when Shireen nearly passes out at an underground rave club? Or see a close-up of the fingers when two characters play the piano together? Or—for the love of God, Allah, Buddha—see Shireen and Atafeh dance to Total Eclipse of the Heart (all I could think of was the wedding scene in Old School)?
However, I think the biggest problem with Circumstance is its undying lifelessness. This is not a call to arms, rather it’s a lament. There’s no hope for change. No hint of resolution. The characters all accept their sad fates with little or no resistance. One can feel the exhaustion and despair of the director, but it leaves the film, much like the threat we’re supposed to feel from Atafeh and Shireen’s story, devoid of life and energy. In other words, I understand the message, but what’s the point?
Still, this isn’t a film like Beautiful Boy or even Terri, where the filmmakers lazily expected the audience to supply the meaning. I didn’t like it, but I think Keshavarz has the talent and passion to make a truly great work (it is her first feature-length film, after all), and given my screening last year of The Neighbor, an excellent film by another Iranian filmmaker, I think the country has great potential.
Circumstance has a real conviction and sincerity behind it, but the film itself is sapped. Could the characters not have resisted the oppression of their society, or are they truly all victims of unavoidable circumstance?