Lionsgate // 2011 // 105 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // December 18th, 2011
Let no love fall victim.
Love and politics don't always collide, but when you're gay in Iran, that collision is inevitable if you're interested in expressing that love. Where such thoughts are illegal and there are people around watching your movements, it might seem right to just suppress them and live how society deems appropriate. But writer/director Maryam Keshavarz shows in Circumstance, her debut feature, that despite the inescapability of societal norms, keeping true to one's self is the only real path to happiness.
Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are best friends and classmates in Tehran who enjoy Iranian underground youth culture, with its dancing, drinking, and music. They must keep all that under wraps, though, lest the morality police will literally break down the door and take them to jail. It becomes worse for the two girls when their friendship starts to more resemble love, a taboo that could land them into incredible trouble. Soon, though, Atafeh's ex-addict brother who now works for the police, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai, F-Stops), makes a deal to marry Shireen, threatening to ruin the real love the girls have to each other.
Iranian-born, New York-raised director Keshavarz culled the story for Circumstance, in part, from her own experiences with her cousins while visiting Iran and shows a vibrant youth culture very much like one that might exist in the west. The film is at its best in these scenes, which have a realistic, infectious life much different from the way the culture is often portrayed. Atafeh and Shireen, though coming from very different backgrounds, are kids being kids, taking advantage of the burgeoning youth culture as much as they can. They learn, though, that the fun they're having can only last until the morality police find out. Moreover, the love that each has found in the other is subject to the exact same scrutiny.
They know this, of course, but their love is stronger than their fear. The trouble comes after they are caught, not in the expression of their love, but in the club getting drunk and listening to hip-hop. It becomes clear to Atafeh's family at this point the life their daughter is leading and her father, in spite of his American education and liberal-mindedness, can't allow her to live in such a manner while she's a child in his house. This attitude is extended to Shireen who, while not necessarily under the thumb of the family, she is under heightened suspicion as the orphan of a pair of journalists killed for their writing. For her own protection, scummy brother Mehran coerces her into marriage (one of the saddest wedding scenes I've ever watched), bringing her into the family and containing her actions. It allows Atafeh and Shireen to be together, but it's here that Mehran's real intentions show themselves. With his cameras in place and everyone together in the same house, he can watch them all at once and report any anti-Iranian or immoral activities to the authorities, and he does not hesitate.
While Circumstance feels a little sensationalistic by this stage of the film, it had already worked enough magic on me to see the story through. Atafeh and Shireen are great characters and the performances of the young actresses, both in their debut, do an extremely good job in make their relationship believable. They build a ton of sympathy on their own and with the help of the despicable Mehran, whose actions drive the second half of the film. Keshavarz brings them together with the conflicting cultures she represents, contrasting the youth culture with that of the establishment and detailing their uneasy relationship.
Keshavarz's vision is realized in combination with cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard (Plague Town) and composer Gingger Shankar (Homecoming), whose combined efforts really give Circumstance a complete feel. The film was shot in Beirut, Lebanon, with relative freedom compared to what they'd have faced in trying to actually shoot in Tehran. The stand-in city looks reasonably like Tehran, though I'm sure people from the area can tell the difference, and the interiors range from the deep browns of the homes and mosques to the candy-colored lighting of the party scenes. Shankar's music fits perfectly, as well, with gorgeous traditional songs mixed in with imported rock and hip-hop. Together with the performances, this debut production from Keshavarz is very strong and a film I can easily recommend.
The DVD for Circumstance comes from Lionsgate and is a pretty good release. The image transfer is lovely, about as strong as you're going to get in a standard definition release. The colors and black levels in this beautifully lit film are nearly perfect, with great clarity all the way to the back of the frame. The sound is not quite as strong, but it's still a good surround mix. The dialog is perfectly clear, the music sounds great, and the ambient sound is quite strong in the rear channels. The extras are slight, but of pretty good quality. An audio commentary featuring Keshavarz, Safai, cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard, and composer Gingger Shankar gives a solid account of the film's production from many angles and is a better than average commentary. A fifteen minute, entirely standard making-of featurette that gives additional interviews and backstage footage, along with a trailer, close out the disc.
Circumstance is an excellent film. Some may be annoyed by the increasing explosiveness of onscreen events, but the film has a lovely message and some really great performances, especially with such an inexperienced cast. It's not a terribly subtle piece, but it's a fantastic debut from Keshavarz that I can wholly recommend.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Farsi)
Running Time: 105 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Official Site