‘Circumstance’ Review: More Than Just ‘That Iranian Lesbian Movie’

Powerful drama examines life in contemporary Iran, where underground subcultures can’t compete with the religious fanatics running society

Last Updated: September 15, 2013 @ 6:07 PM

While many will probably refer to “Circumstance” in shorthand as “the Iranian lesbian movie,” part of what makes the film so powerful is its portrayal of modern-day Iran as a country so oppressive that you don’t even have to be a lesbian to suffer there.

Sure, it’s a lousy place to be a woman who loves women, but it’s also not so great if you’re an intellectual or a feminist or even just a fan of hip-hop.

Writer-director Maryam Keshavarz’s debut feature contains echoes of “The Lives of Others” and “My Son, the Fanatic,” but it stands on its own in its portrayal of everyday people trying to make the best of their circumstances in a restrictive society.

Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are best friends — wealthy Ati lives in privilege (her father is a noted musician and her mother a Berkeley-educated surgeon), while Shireen has been raised by her grandfather after her parents, both academics, were killed by the government.

They can’t leave the house without headscarves, or drive a car, or even swim in the ocean publicly, but like teenage girls everywhere, they’ve figured out a way to misbehave — the pair take us on a tour of underground Teheran, where afternoon discotheques (complete with drugs) flourish in apartments and barbershops hide secret stores full of contraband CDs and DVDs.

(A visiting American-born Iranian wants to dub “Milk” into Farsi as a tool of revolution; his friend agrees only on the condition that they bootleg it on the same disc as a dubbed “Sex and the City” movie.)

Ati and Shireen’s lives of down-low recklessness become imperiled by the return of Ati’s brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) — a failed musician–turned–addict, he trades one drug for another, namely religious fanaticism. Mehran joins the Morality Police, a volunteer group of thugs who enforce the nation’s draconian cultural laws, and he soon begins spying on his family. (Even more frightening, we see how Mehran and Ati’s progressive parents slowly fall under the sway of their son’s religious zeal.)

During all this, Ati and Shireen discover that they love each other, and they make big plans about running away to Dubai to live openly. (Not that Dubai is all that far ahead of Iran when it comes to issues of homosexuality, but that’s another story.) The privileged Ati can bribe her way out of the country, the film suggests, but things may not be so easy for Shireen.

Shot undercover in Beirut, “Circumstance” allows a glimpse into the iconoclastic and dissatisfied youth who have played such a huge role in this year’s “Arab Spring” and in the current uprisings in Libya and Syria.

And it’s the kind of movie to show to your parents or anyone else who gets swayed by a presidential candidate who says that he (or she) wants to run the United States based on “Biblical principles.” Those of us living in the Western world get a little coddled about what theocracy really looks like, and it’s a good thing to get a reminder every so often.

While shooting in what must have been challenging circumstances, Keshavarz still manages to get sterling performances from a Farsi-speaking cast containing many newcomers. The film looks great as well, with cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard capturing everything from a secret rave party to a beachside jaunt to Ati’s dreams of luxury in Dubai in a way that makes each feel realistic and still contextual to the whole movie.

Ultimately, “Circumstance” isn’t about religion or politics — it’s about masses, huddled or otherwise, yearning to breathe free. And their stories are ones we don’t hear often enough.