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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, September 23, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 38
Intimate Circumstance a heartfelt human saga
Arts & Entertainment
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Intimate Circumstance a heartfelt human saga

by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN Contributing Writer

Circumstance
Now Playing


Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) are 16-year-old best friends living in Tehran. The former is the daughter of a wealthy and somewhat liberal family while the latter is an orphan stuck in the home of an uncle who looks down on her as an inconvenience to be married off. But Atafeh's older brother Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai) has always had a crush on Shireen, and even though he's going through a litany of personal troubles clouding his judgment and affecting his political point of view his feelings for her are as strong as ever.

The girls hide a secret. Coming into their own as young women, they are slowly realizing their attraction to one another is more all-encompassing than they realized as children. They are in love, and give into their physical temptations even though they know getting caught could ruin their lives forever.

Circumstance isn't perfect. There are times it drowns in heavy-handed melodrama and annoying, threadbare generalizations. But overall, writer and director Maryam Keshavarz's highly personal coming-of-age epic hits home like a sledgehammer, achieving such a delicate, almost winsomely poignant grace that certain segments become instantly unforgettable. Anchored by three electric performances by Boosheri, Safai, and Kazemy, the movie is a moving examination of relationships and awakening sexual longings amidst the chaos of a politicized landscape that worms its way like a virus right to heart of a loving family's home.

There are essentially two stories at play here. The first is the love story between Atafeh and Shireen, both engaging in an elegant dance both know could ruin their futures. Both dream of being together outside of Iran, escaping to a European freedom that will allow them to be who they are and live their lives as they know they were meant to be. But what is the price of this longing? What would happen to their loved ones if they were to leave? Most of all, do they even have the courage to make such a decision outside of their mutual dreams, knowing that doing so might mean they'd never be able to return to a country they love?

The other tale revolves around Mehran. A burgeoning musical prodigy, he has returned home from drug rehab with his dreams shattered and his future seemingly destroyed. He is lost, swimming against a tide he doesn't understand and living in a world he longs to be part of. Soon he joins the morality police and starts espousing fundamentalist ideals his parents and sister find ghastly yet cannot say so out loud in fear their only son will turn them in for prosecution. He starts keeping tabs on Atafeh and Shireen, digging into thier personal lives like a spy, looking for angles and plotting outcomes that could lead to his sister's best friend becoming his bride.

These two tangents are on an obvious collision course, both working at cross purposes yet sharing an innate similarity that's as intimate as it is tragic. What's better, it is entirely unclear what will happen when Mehran makes his move, Keshavarz doing an excellent job of keeping her cards hidden and letting the action play itself out as naturalistically as possible.

At the same time, there are sequences where the director almost can't help overplaying her hand. Some of Mehran's theatrics play like second-rate excerpts from The Lives of Others, and while I appreciate the fact that Keshavarz wants the audience to understand the full weight of the political situation in Iran, there were countless times when I felt less would have been more, and keeping an understated tone would have greatly enhanced the emotional impact of the final third. She also tends to have cinematographer Brian Rigney Hubbard (Plague Town) shoot certain sequences with a glossy sheen that looks more like a softcore porno than it does a sensual human drama - one sequence in particular recalls the works of Zalman King more than it does anything else.

Yet the actors are so good, the emotional center of the piece so strong, the film achieves a melodic familiarity that's practically rhapsodic. Better, Keshavarz takes things to a somewhat unexpected place, allowing some dreams to thrive, others to be crushed and the hope for something better to blissfully survive. The final scenes, dominated to a large extent by the stunning open-book grace of Boosheri, took my breath away, and by the time the film was over I was somewhat awestruck by just how deeply the story being told affected me. Circumstance doesn't always make the right moves, and some of it certainly could have been better, but the emotions at the center of it all are honest, true, and heartfelt, making it a sublime treat I thoroughly enjoyed.

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Chely Wright talks with SGN about SWC concert
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Stars of Iranian film discuss forbidden love: An interview with Circumstance's Nikohl Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy
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SGN's 2011 fall film preview: Part I
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SGN's 2011 fall film preview: Part II
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Intimate Circumstance a heartfelt human saga
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Q-Scopes by Jack Fertig
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OMD's Paul Humphreys notes band's past and present success
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