Moral Police, by David Bax
On multiple occasions while watching Maryam Keshavarz’s Circumstance, I found myself wondering where it was filmed. The story takes place in Tehran but, from the admittedly little I know of the area, it seems unlikely the filmmakers could get away with shooting this stuff there. The film is rife with depictions of young women acting independently, frequently misbehaving and sometimes, if you can imagine, even taking their clothes off.
These images, though, aren’t the only – or even the most potent – elements of transgression present. The movie (actually shot in Beirut) is also filled with discussions and, in these scenes, it’s at its best. The most powerful, honest and inspirational message of Circumstance is that all culture is political, especially in a place like Iran where culture is so strictly regulated. The music one listens to and the movies one watches naturally come together to support a worldview. Unfortunately, the times these issues are explored are the only times that the film is good.
The narrative is of two teenage girls, Atefah and Shireen. Atefah is wealthy and Shireen is not but both are secular and rebellious. Their close friendship eventually transforms into a romantic and sexual relationship that is sternly tested by Atefah’s older brother, who has transformed from drug addict to religious and moral extremist. These characters, along with Atefah’s intellectual parents, should lay the groundwork for an intelligent and interesting film about the nuances of life under Iranian rule and the struggle of a love that is forbidden by many different people for many different reasons. Instead, the screenplay unfolds as if it’s running down a checklist of things you’re not allowed to do in Iran.
If the characters really did come first, if their desires and motivations felt real, Keshavarz would have a very strong foundation upon which to build her political case, not to mention a relatable, human entry point for anyone of any background. Instead, what she has is a kind of agitprop melodrama, like a string of short and plain “issues films.” Mainly, the issue, one that likely must inform any story set in Iran, is religious fundamentalism.
The older brother, named Mehran, comes to be the embodiment of the moral strictures that all Iranians and especially female ones have to live under. His presence in the family’s home is analogous to the lack of privacy one is afforded under such rule. As a symbol, he is oppressive and oppressively opaque. As a character, he is neglected and underdeveloped. His transformation from addict to religious devotee is nonexistent. We are simply presented with the fact that he is now an informant for the moral police. In Tehran, by the way, “moral police” is not a metaphor or exaggeration. It is a literal thing.
Life in a society that is clinging so hard and with such ardor to the ways of the less tolerant past has to be heartbreakingly and infuriatingly difficult for those born with the curse of a 21st century mind. Merely depicting such an existence, even without much cinematic grace, is a moving endeavor. It’s impossible not to be shaken by the injustice and the struggles of decent people denied basic human rights. In that sense, Circumstance accomplishes what it intends to. Without a transformative and cohesive narrative, however, it’s unlikely to be a lasting piece of subversive culture.