'Circumstance'

Certain to be discussed more for its daring depiction of a lesbian relationship in present-day Tehran than for its artistic merits.

Certain to be discussed more for its daring depiction of a lesbian relationship in present-day Tehran than for its artistic merits, writer-director Maryam Keshavarz’s “Circumstance” suggests a new way of showing stories about young Iranians even as it stumbles and falls over myriad narrative miscalculations. The account of young Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) falling in love with fellow schoolgirl Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) — before being pulled apart by events — will draw invites from fests including generalist and gay-lesbian events. Pic has been picked up for U.S. release by Participant Media.

Atafeh and Shireen are first viewed as typical Tehrani high schoolers, though Shireen encounters regular difficulties with authorities, being the daughter of two famed, now-dead parents who were harsh critics of the Islamic Republic. While Shireen lives with her uncle and grandmother, Atafeh enjoys a more stable nuclear family led by worldly, Bach-loving dad Firooz (Soheil Parsa) and adoring mom Azar (Nasin Pakkho), who loves singing nostalgic songs.

The girls know their way around the city’s underground party scene, where gatherings are held in private apartments or in warehouses converted into dance clubs. In these scenes, Keshavarz, shooting mostly in Beirut, Lebanon, captures contempo Iranian life more realistically than any current made-in-Iran film could: Here, when women enter a private interior, they remove their head coverings and even strip down to racy dresses.

“Circumstance” moves even further afield from censored Persian cinema when the gals grow physically intimate, including vivid Dubai-set fantasies of frequenting lesbian bars and making love in lush hotel rooms. Such scenes will likely make the pic ineligible at most Mideast fests, but will set tongues wagging in the widespread Iranian diaspora community, where the pic is already a talking point.

Keshavarz’s script devolves into the ridiculous as it develops the poorly conceived character of Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), Atafeh’s long-absent, hash-addicted brother, who suddenly turns up at home and just as suddenly nurtures an affinity for fundamentalist Islam. Incredibly, and without Firooz knowing, Mehran manages to install surveillance cameras in every room in the family house so he can spy on his “infidel” clan.

This, plus everyone’s astounding cluelessness about Atafeh and Shireen’s actual relationship, sends the film reeling into a nonsensical latter half. As Mehran’s power and influence grows over the family, “Circumstance” becomes a loopy piece of psycho-paranoia, in which all but Atafeh find no escape from the Islamic net, pushing the film further away from contempo Persian realities even as it aspires to show them.

Performances drift by the reel toward excessive melodrama, with Safai in particular saddled with an impossible role. Tech package is close to mainstream European standards, with d.p. Brian Rigney Hubbard working to modest effect in anamorphic widescreen. Gingger Shankar, great-niece of Ravi Shankar, manages some convincing Persian-style music, with a soundtrack sprinkled with such pop Persian faves as Andy.

Circumstance

U.S.-Iran-Lebanon

Production

A Participant Media (in U.S.) release of a Marakesh Films presentation. (International sales: Funny Balloons, Paris.) Produced by Karin Chien, Maryam Keshavarz, Melissa M. Lee. Co-producer, Antonin Dedet. Directed, written by Maryam Keshavarz.

Crew

Camera (color, widescreen), Brian Rigney Hubbard; editor, Andrea Chignoli; music, Gingger Shankar; production designer, Natacha Kalfayan; sound (Dolby Digital); associate producers, Hossein Keshavarz, Carla Roley, Maryam Azadi. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23, 2011. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Nikohl Boosheri, Sarah Kazemy, Reza Sixo Safai, Soheil Parsa, Nasin Pakkho, Sina Amedson, Keon Mohajeri. (Farsi dialogue)

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