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by Jay Seaver

"Dictatorships, large and small."
5 stars

SCREENED AT INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2011: "Circumstance" is sneaky. It starts out as a simple tale of teenage idealism and perhaps forbidden love, and that thread certainly continues throughout the entire film. The clever thing that writer/director Maryam Keshavarz does is to show a repressive society not just as an exterior threat, but a cage its prisoners have a part in constructing.

Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) have been best friends their entire life, and as teenagers, they're becoming lovers as well. Of course, they've got to be careful; modern-day Iran is not a place where such relationships are smiled upon, especially with Shireen living with her uncle because her dissident parents died in prison. Still, Atafeh knows all the places where they can dance, smoke, and listen to rock & roll; her wealthy parents (Soheil Parsa & Nasrin Pakkho) tend to look the other way. Still, they're well-aware that this can go too far; Atafeh's brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) has just returned from rehab. Like many recovering addicts, he has turned to God, and his God is strict.

Keshavarz develops the two halves of the story in parallel, and it's interesting to see how they compare. "Ati" and Shireen act with the enthusiastic abandon of youth; they're often careless and Atafeh, especially, has more confidence than is perhaps warrented. Their idea of freedom and rebellion is mild, occasionally funny in its naivete. It's an attitude that perhaps father Firouz and mother Azar are not doing enough to temper; though basically liberal, they've been isolated enough to not have to worry. Meanwhile, Mehran is spending more time at the mosque and feeling like he doesn't fit in among his family. We meet him as he is humbled in both senses of the word, and those two emotions feed on each other. It's interesting that the main characters don't really do a lot for the first half of the movie or so, but there's still something engrossing about it as the bulk of the characters stand still while Mehran moves inexorably toward the lure of fundamentalism. The two threads occasionally tie together, creating moments of tension that increase every time.

When the climax comes, Keshavarz does a number of interesting things. The threads don't just tie together, but entwine, making the rest of the movie tightly connected. There's melodrama to the last act, but it never goes beyond what seems reasonable in a repressive country. We get an up-close look at how dictatorships work both at the macro and micro level, and more interestingly, in how repressive societies form and gain power. The last few scenes are impressive studies in weakness and strength, how good feelings can be twisted into bad situations.

Reza Sixo Safai winds up being central to this; Mehran's arc is straightforward, but each step must feels natural. It's an impressive transformation, especially when the audience sees how the insecurities and weakness from the start are still present at the end. Atafeh doesn't undergo quite the same sort of metamorphosis, but she grows up nicely over the course of the film; Nikohl Boosheri makes a character that could be annoyingly irresponsible at the start quite sympathetic. Sarah Kazemy has to do something a little different as Shireen - this character has less of a safety net, and it shows - but manages just as well.

It's a well-made movie. Shooting in Tehran is obviously out of the question, but Beirut substitutes nicely. Keshavarz sticks to primarily middle-class environs and holds off showing the women there women as victims, giving us a picture of Iran as a country that is inclined to be more modern and free than a determined minority will allow it to be. There may not be anything deliberate to how establishing shots of the mosque where Mehran worships make it look like the world's most phallic building, but it works to get the idea of male power established even while Atafeh and Shireen are still mostly doing what they will. She also does a neat thing with surveillance video footage, making it part of the plot but also a visual means to equate the oppression of the government with how a home can become a dictatorship.

It's been done before, of course, but seldom this well. It's a remarkably tight combination of coming-of-age story and social commentary, engrossing when it could just have been dry or hysterical.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=21753&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/27/11 09:21:21
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2011 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2011 series, click here.

User Comments

6/03/13 pedram could be better 3 stars
3/03/12 Charles R.L. Power Not exactly 1984, but good picture of repression 5 stars
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  26-Aug-2011 (R)
  DVD: 13-Dec-2011


  DVD: 13-Dec-2011

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