It’s damn near impossible to reflect on Jafar Panahi’s latest directorial effort/rebellion, “Closed Curtain,” without considering the facts of his current life. After being arrested and imprisoned multiple times in the last few years, the Iranian government has prohibited Panahi from leaving the country and slapped the man with a 20-year ban on any sort of filmmaking. His torture was palpably captured in “This Is Not A Film,” a work created on cheap digital equipment that served not only as a diary for the filmmaker but as a defiant proclamation: his voice would not be silenced.
And he wasn’t done. Just a few years later, “Closed Curtain” finds the director again working within constraints in a similar fashion yet with crucially different results. He’s still playing with narrative and reality, but the demons of pent up despair and exhaustion of literal/figurative confinement have come home to roost. What begins as a traditional story gets much more complex as it continues—previous characters are revealed to be manifestations of the director’s inner turmoil, roaming the outskirts of the story and attempting to sway Panahi in various ways. It can feel chaotic at times, but Panahi corrals it masterfully: his approach to the material has a removed maturity and assurance, as if these recent two projects have let him grow considerably.
If there’s any evidence of this, it’s in the opening shot, brimming with assurance. Set in the sole location of the movie, the camera faces out through a gated window, catching two men carrying some luggage towards the house. This incredible single take doesn’t just set the mood, it plants the viewer firmly into Panahi’s state of mind, a condition that will grow in importance as the movie persists.
In walks the Writer (played by co-director Kambuzia Partovi but also a likely surrogate for the other director), unzipping a dufflebag to reveal a quite adorable puppy. As the pooch scampers around, the Writer goes about covering every window in the house, first with their proper white curtains and then reinforcing them with black drapery. He labors intermittently on a screenplay, suggesting that this reclusive behavior is part of his workflow. Eventually, he witnesses a news report that paints his behavior in a different light: along with gruesome pictures of murdered canines lining the streets, an anchor explains that dogs are no longer prohibited under Iran’s Sharia law.
Partovi’s character is properly isolated until a young man (Reza, played by Hadi Saeedi) and woman (Melika, by Maryam Moqadam) randomly enter the house, pleading for shelter from some unknown assailants. Neither take the Writer’s questions or protests seriously (further cementing Panahi’s powerlessness through his proxy), and before Reza takes off to procure a vehicle, he mentions that Melika is suicidal and should be cared for. As the night continues and Melika imposes herself upon our hero, her identity is soon revealed as a journalist of sorts, one that has written a number of articles about this very screenwriter. Melika disappears, the Writer and his pup hide, and the night passes. And then, Jafar Panahi steps in front of the camera.
From here on out, “Closed Curtain” starts to resemble “This Is Not A Film” as Panahi interacts with neighbors and tends to his home, yet both Melika and the Writer (and occasionally other characters from their reality) pop in and out, commenting on Panahi’s current being. It becomes clear that the two are meant to represent something more than characters, a manifestation of different parts of Panahi: with the Writer his creativity, stymied by having to lay in hiding; Melika gives life to his deep depression, egging him on to drown himself in the sea.
Though recent interviews have had the director lamenting his new restrictive work method, his work far transcends the curtailment. Scenes shot on iPhones are common and worked into the film in sometimes playfully meta ways (an earlier scene shot by the Writer is later rewatched by Panahi, revealing the entire crew, including the director himself). The digital cameras’ reading of on-set light is also used, for once, as an asset—once the curtains are torn down, the blown out light from outside envelopes the characters and not only serves as a meaty symbol, but one of the truly positive things in the film.
If the film is sounding like nothing more than a self-serving ego trip, keep in mind that Panahi is railing against his country’s government in ways aside from “simply” breaking the law by making a movie. The aforementioned canine ban is a damning strike against a destructive, pointless decree, and further, the film is peppered with paranoia of the oppressive government, so much so that every look out of the house holds tangible dread. In one telling scene, Panahi investigates a broken window due to a possible break in but refuses to alert the police because it would likely cause more difficulty. There’s not even simple protection offered to its citizens, only crackdowns on free speech and innocent pets.
Given the patient tempo of the piece, there is a sense of detachment throughout. Panahi himself is a very internal presence, and despite the conflict of whether or not the man will actually take his own life (spoiler: this isn’t “Arirang”), the film is generally undramatic. However, that’s hardly a criticism—while “Closed Curtain” digs deep into the psyche of an artist, it also is full of the ordinary, organic life moments that have populated Panahi’s work since the beginning. Time is allotted to the kind (an elderly neighbor bringing him a full meal for no occasion) and to the unfortunate (a hired hand politely refuses a picture with the filmmaker to avoid “trouble”). One of the best examples of this, however, comes toward the end. A neighbor stops by and empathizes with Panahi, but also insists that life is more than filmmaking—it is everything. Pleasant memories, bitter memories, etc. The filmmaker dismisses this, but his work—even under heavy restrictions—says the opposite. [A-]