Rating:We need Jafar Panahi. One of world cinema’s most important figures, the Iranian director, currently under house arrest and technically barred from filmmaking for making one too many critical statements about the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei regime, faces severe artistic and political limitations, but that hasn’t stopped him from creating unique, formally inventive work on par with anything he made prior to his sentencing. His first go at verboten filmmaking was the documentary hybrid This is Not A Film (2011), in which Panahi illustrates what happens when an artistic mind is faced with draconian restrictions and limited resources. It’s both a self-portrait and something of a cry for help, a deeply personal look inside an intrepid mind stymied by government pettiness. (Rumor has it the film was snuck into Cannes in a USB drive baked into a cake, but Panahi’s legend has begun to outgrow the man himself. . .)
A more moderate president has since been elected in Iran, but Panahi’s situation remains unchanged. Naturally, his second “non-film,” Closed Curtain, has much to do with the first. Both are marked by a deep sense of anxiety and isolation, but Closed Curtain has an emotional undercurrent that reveals itself in strokes of allegory and lyricism. Where This is Not a Film felt like a raw document, Closed Curtain is a measured statement, significantly more legible but no less spellbinding in its exploration of cinema, reality, and the cross sections between the two.
The film opens with a stunning long shot, the camera peering through the barred window of a lakeside home; a car pulls up, and two men get out, one of whom (co-director Kambuzia Partovi) enters the home carrying a (very adorable) dog in a canvas bag. He leaves the little guy to roam about the house and begins to block out every window with thick black curtains. Gradually, we learn he’s a screenwriter hiding out from authorities tasked with massacring canines on the grounds that they’re unfit for the Islamic Republic. He seems to be enjoying his solitude when out of the blue, almost like something out of a ghost story, a young woman (Maryam Moqadam) and her brother (Hadi Saeedi) appear in his doorway, and from there, the narrative grows increasingly splintered before completely unraveling in the self-reflexive, metaphysical way Panahi narratives tend to do. In an effort to leave some of the mystery to the viewer, we’ll just say the film becomes the story of how Panahi’s sentencing has adversely altered not only the way he creates cinema, but also how he relates to it, which naturally has profound effects on his life in general.
As with any Panahi film, Closed Curtain’s various conceits border on whimsy, but the sincerity on display wins over every time. Even as he begins to feed into his own image a bit too garishly—it’s been said that certain elements of his current state have been greatly exaggerated—he posits himself as a symbol for the oppressed, an appropriate measure to take as cinema seems at its most corruptible. Here is a man resolved to create images despite the deck stacked against him, when even the purpose of doing so seems to elude him—when the film quite plainly points to his thoughts of suicide, the emotional nakedness is almost too much to bear. That said, the film isn’t sensationalistic. Aside from one or two “gotcha!” moments, there are no grand flourishes in Closed Curtain. Rather, the seemingly innocuous throwaways—the howling wind, the crashing waves, the curtains, the glass windows, the glasses of tea, a water bottle, an iPhone, the dog—pack the biggest wallop, treated so-matter-of-factly that they belie the thematic and aesthetic weight at hand. A very small moment, when Partovi, as he first enters the home, misses the hat rack attempting to hang his bowler, is perhaps the film’s key gesture: the fact that Panahi didn’t yell “cut!” and make him do it again says everything about the filmmaker, his morals, and his art.