Review: Swept Away by Circumstance

Circumstance -- it’s been the bane and crucible of love epics for centuries, from Romeo and Juliet to Gone With the Wind. (And by circumstance, we of course mean the star-crossed kind.) Clearly it’s a fitting and telling title for director/writer Maryam Keshavarz’s film Circumstance.

Set in modern-day Iran, the movie peers behind a cultural curtain that’s not often lifted, on-screen or in real life, and sees through the eyes of two teen school girls, Shireen and Atafeh. But there’s nothing girlish about their sultry looks: Shireen is the voluptuous, pouty siren of poor parents, whom upstanding Muslim men call trash, yet lust for; Atafeh is the svelte, doe-eyed princess raised by a wealthy liberal family whose money only takes them so far in an oppressive religious regime. Atafeh is Shireen’s BFF and free pass into underground nightclubs where they can trade their austere school uniforms and burkas for slinky dresses and dirty dancing. Then they top off their youthful debauchery with heavy drinking, graffiti vandalism, and stealing jeweled purses from luxury cars. It’s a precarious enough life for the pair with the Morality Police always lurking around the corner. It becomes much more treacherous, however, when you factor in their forbidden love -- for each other.

Theirs is a secret passion that’s the throbbing pulse of the film’s lush sensuality and eroticism (that -- sorry, boys -- titillates without blossoming into full-on lesbian porn). Yet while they whisper their love under the bed covers and dream of running away to Dubai together, Atafeh’s prodigal brother Mehran has other plans (or plots). An apt romance villain, the born-again Muslim fanatic praises Allah, but lusts for Shireen.

Political injustice, moral condemnation, and even a touch of comedy (as a visiting cousin from America Hossein urges the girls to “change their circumstances” and rebel against their society’s repression by dubbing over the voices for Milk) … Circumstance has it all. Keshavarz also gives it a visual lushness and volatile beauty and passion that echos Pedro Almodovar (especially Broken Embraces). It all boils down (or up) to a series of screen circumstances that make it hard not to be swept away by Circumstance.

Grade: B+