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Sundance '11 Day 4: Girls, women, God

Posted by Wesley Morris  January 23, 2011 07:47 PM

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Circumstance.jpgDear Park City restaurant community: If I make a habit of walking through your doors, be afraid. Every restaurant I love here closes. Last year, my favorite chicken place vanished. Today, I left Maryam Keshavarz's "Circumstance" desperate for food and discovered that China Buffet is no more. Honestly, its days were numbered. Most of my afternoons there were spent alone. "Circumstance" is not recommended for the hungry, anyway. The appetites in the film are big. They're a little bit for freedom but mostly for sex. Which is understandable. The movie's two progressively reared Iranian students -- Atafeh and Shireen (Nikohi Boosheri and Sarah Kazemy) -- are outrageously sexy. 

But lest you mistake their inability to keep their hands off each other for cheap erotic provocation, Keshavarz, an American making her feature debut, throws in a surveillance plot that gives the movie allegorical heft. It's a cheap erotic provocation with political wrapping. She gives us a look us at Tehran's druggy, hormonal (and affluent) youth culture (she filmed in Beirut), and with every shot of a swinging booty and every pill popped, you feel like someone involved with this production could, at any moment, lose her life -- or at least have her freedoms severely curtailed. That, of course, is what the movie is about: how to thrive amid cultural suppression. 

Higher Ground.jpg

Keshavarz sends the camera up and down the bodies of her stars. She throws in an incest plot, lesbian nightclub fantasies, and Atafeh and Shireen's lip-synching  "Total Eclipse of the Heart" along with an "American Idol" contestant. At some point, the girls and two male friends hit the video store and discuss the point of Gus Van Sant's "Milk," which is available only in a state-censored version: It's not about sex, one says. A lot of the film is overblown -- ungently ridiculous -- but in a scene like that and another that follows, in which they re-dub the right dialogue for the movie and restore the sounds of orgasms to "Sex and the City," Keshavarz establishes herself as a smart, insightful voice who can be didactic and very funny at the same time. That's not a quality I need in a filmmaker but she's quite good at it. The sex, meanwhile -- that's stuff you can see, with no problem, almost anywhere. Except, of course, in Iran.

"Circumstance" contains a sexualized foot. Incredibly, so does Vera Farmiga's first film as a director, "Higher Ground." (Her movie's foot features cake icing.) She plays a 1960s housewife who discovers that she might not be as devout a Christian as she thought. The movie take its sweet time getting to its most interesting ideas about chauvinism in the Christian church. Before that, the movie, which Carolyn S. Briggs co-adapted from her memoir, "This Dark World," chugs along, first as a coming-of-age movie, then as a film about how tough young marriage can be. Finally, a portrait emerges of the limitations of a tight-knit spiritual community. But it's all episodic, like watching the highlights from a life mis-lived -- or a movie mis-made.

None of the characters quite makes sense. Farmiga and the rest of the cast -- Donna Murphy, John Hawkes, Joshua Leonard, Norbert Leo Butz -- play emotions but not complete characters. So the acting tends to swerve all over the lane. The performance with the most personality -- Dagmara Dominczyk's -- is cut short then abandoned. A friend pointed out that actors are drawn to the outsize nature of preaching -- Robert Duvall's "The Apostle" being the apex of such an attraction. Even as it feels unfinished, "Higher Ground" also feels like it's up to something about feminism and freedom and equal spiritual access to God. Farmiga just seems to nervous to tap into the power and clarity necessary to dramatize it. Maryam Keshavarz doesn't seem nervous at all. 

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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