★★ / ★★★★
Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) share a close friendship despite the fact that they come from very different backgrounds. Atafeh’s family (Soheil Parsa, Nasrin Pakkho) is wealthy and able to afford special luxuries under the constant watch of a strict government. On the other hand, Shireen lives with her aunt and uncle in which her only hope for a better life, traditionally speaking, is to partake in an arranged marriage. This is a problem because Atafeh and Shireen are very attracted to each other. And in their culture, homosexuality is forbidden.
When Atafeh’s brother, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), is released from drug rehab, he is determined to lead a different existence by staying away from drugs and embracing religion with fervor. In addition, he joins the morality police, spies who report illicit activities to the corrupt police force. He does not know that his sister is attracted to women.
Written and directed by Maryam Keshavarz, “Circumstance” hopes to say a few things about personal and societal freedom but the tone is so languid and the pacing remains at a snail’s pace that the important messages it wishes to convey about culture, tolerance, and acceptance lack velocity and, inevitably, impact. While the performances are solid all around, the acting is not enough to allow the material to pop.
Atafeh and Shireen are chained by the rules of society, one that is heavily influenced by religion. The film’s strength mostly comes from scenes where they must hide from being seen, not knowing that cameras are everywhere and someone is always watching. Although we suspect that it is likely they are going to get caught, some suspense remains. It is only a matter of time until the cops gather enough evidence to condemn the women with anything they wish: a crime–or crimes–that is heavily punishable by law.
Still, there is only a small connection established between politics and religion. The gaps with regards to these connections are glaring at times. For example, there are curious shots of Atafeh looking, with slight annoyance or disdain, at her brother as he performs his daily prayers. Is she bothered by the fact that the brother she has known for so many years is worlds apart from the one who has recently come out of rehab? Are the pointed looks meant to imply that she disapproves of her own religion since it despises homosexuality?
Perhaps Keshavarz’ intention is to give us a chance to read between the lines. Instead, it feels as though she has decided to hold back. I do not know much about the characters’ culture. I wanted to know more about it, including its complexities, but a thick fog remains. Most of the time, I felt disconnected from the characters even though I had an idea about their circumstances and what is at stake.
The elaborate fantasies that Atafeh and Shoreen construct in their minds are distracting. Instead of effectively using such sequences as a way of establishing a parallel universe in which their most secret desires can come true, the focus is almost always on sex. While it is not sleazy, I felt like there should have been something deeper between the two lovers than sharing their bodies with each other. Their fantasies keep us at a distance instead of allowing us to know more about them as people with real feelings, thoughts, and limitations.
Since the fantasy sequences focus solely on sexual activities compounded with the fact that they are unable to talk about what it is they share or what they are to each other face-to-face, Atafeh and Shireen are only a little bit less mysterious as when we first meet them. “Circumstance” dances around the topics it needed to address directly. Just because a topic is taboo, it does not necessarily have to be approached with reluctance. Otherwise, what is the point?