Hot and heavy sexual repression in Iran


“Circumstance” takes the viewer into modern-day Iran, where sexual oppression continues but another hidden world exists. The Martha’s Vineyard Film Society will screen this Sundance award-winning film Saturday, Nov. 12, at Vineyard Haven’s Katharine Cornell Theatre.

Director Maryam Keshavarz creates a vivid portrait of a country where teenaged women who are sequestered at school long for a freedom from sexual and social constraints. Best friends Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) dream of a different life in Dubai, where they might pursue careers together in songwriting and singing, visit nightclubs, and build a more liberated life.

Both come from wealthy Iranian backgrounds, although Shireen’s radical academic parents are no longer alive. Firouz (Sohell Parsa) dotes on his daughter Atafeh, while his wife Azar (Nasrin Pakkho) favors the family’s son, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), who has returned home from a drug rehab program with a newfound devotion to Muslim fundamentalism.

Although Firouz may dominate the household, he is no tyrant. He loves music, and both his children play classical piano. Before his religious conversion, his son had planned a career in music.

Within the context of this domestic world, Ms. Keshavarz incorporates modern Mideast Asian music in addition to Bach and Beethoven, as well as a pastiche of close-ups and saturated colors, to create a pulsing, sensual atmosphere. The relationships among Atafeh, Shireen, and Mehran quickly reach a boiling point as sister and brother vie for Shireen’s attentions.

“Circumstance” busily explores the lesbian relationship between the two young women who find themselves confined to a sexually repressive society. The director relies on erotic overhead shots of Atafeh and Shireen and extreme close-ups of their bodies and their lovemaking.

As the story unfolds, though, this steamy romantic triangle overheats to the point of tiresomeness. Ironically, “Circumstance” treats Shireen as much like a sexual object as a more sexually conventional movie might. It just happens that Atafeh and Mehran are brother and sister.

The most interesting character in “Circumstance” proves to be Firouz. So often movies about Islamic societies typecast their father figures as overbearing if not downright tyrannical. Firouz is neither.

In its strongest sections, “Circumstance” reveals Firouz’s sympathy for his daughter’s rebellion and recollections of his own rebellious younger days. This father looks forward to the day he can go swimming with his daughter, an activity forbidden in Iran.

Even though he has a special affinity for his teenaged daughter, he clearly loves both his children. And while the movie may leave it almost entirely undeveloped, Firouz’s relationship with his wife seems affectionate, not neglectful.

With an awkwardly inappropriate title, “Circumstance” seems at times like an oversexed potboiler. But it illustrates how unlike modern-day Iran the imam- and jihad-dominated stereotypes, fed to their audiences by Western media, can be.

“Circumstance,” Saturday, November 12, 7:30 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. $8; $5 MVFS members. Doors open at 7 pm. For more information, see