“Closed Curtain” – 2013 San Diego Asian Film Festival Review

Editor’s note: “Closed Curtain” screens at the Film Forum in New York for two weeks, beginning Wed., July 9, 2014.  For more information, go to http://filmforum.org/film/closed-curtain.

In “This Is Not a Film,” Jafar Panahi’s 2011 semi-documentary feature, which he made shortly after a 20-year ban from filmmaking was imposed on him for supposed subversive anti-government activities, Panahi describes and maps out in detail an idea for a film he would like to make. At one point, however, he gives up in utter despair and futility. “If you could tell a film, then why make a film?” he asks, his overwhelming frustration bringing him to tears. In this scene, we see the full weight of the restrictions that have been imposed on him by the state, and how this stifling of his creativity has caused him great psychological distress.

However, “This Is Not a Film” consisted of more than just Panahi lamenting his unfortunate circumstances; there was also a wit and sardonic humor that came out as well, which helped this film appeal to a wide swath of audiences and critics. The film also left one in admiration for Panahi’s defiance, and his refusal to allow the Iranian government to completely kill his creative spirit or his artistic ambitions.

Panahi now offers us “Closed Curtain,” the second film he has made following his filmmaking ban. Like “This Is Not a Film,” “Closed Curtain” was filmed in secret in the confines of a home, this time in a beachfront villa near the Caspian Sea, as opposed to the city apartment of “This Is Not a Film.” “Closed Curtain” also tackles the subject of creativity under a regime hostile to, and suspicious of, those who create art. But there is where the similarities mostly end. “Closed Curtain” is a much darker, and in many ways, a more despairing film than “This Is Not a Film.” There is a hermetic, claustrophobic feeling to this film, as well as a much more complex interplay between documentary and fictional elements, that make this a much more difficult and challenging film. This is probably the reason that “Closed Curtain,” despite its best screenplay win at this year’s Berlin Film Festival, has not been as readily embraced by critics as Panahi’s previous film.

“Closed Curtain” begins with a long, static take of a man arriving by taxi to the house where the film will take place, shot from behind a metal gate. This immediately invokes images of prison, and the camera itself is imprisoned during this film; it never leaves the confines of this house, trapping the viewer within this space along with the characters. The man who arrives at the house is a screenwriter (co-director Kamboziya Partovi), listed in the credits as simply “The Writer.” He is a middle-aged, grey-haired gentleman, with the wary looks and furtive movements of a fugitive. Reinforcing this initial impression, the first thing he does when he arrives at the home is to draw the curtains on every window in the house. Not content with this level of concealment, he also hangs additional black curtains on the windows to further shield him from any potential prying eyes outside.

It’s not until he feels secure enough in his isolation behind the heavy curtains that he lets free his dog, named Boy, from the zippered bag he’s been concealing him in. Boy is by far the film’s most engaging and charismatic presence; the charm and playfulness of this dog puts him on a par with such famous dogs as Lassie, Benji, and Asta from the “Thin Man” movies. Boy can only be let loose behind closed doors as a result of a particularly cruel policy of the unnamed regime where this story takes place: because dogs are considered unclean according to Islamic law, they are forbidden to be owned and are even rounded up and killed in the streets by authorities. One memorable scene has Boy watching a news report of this happening to his fellow canines, as he cowers fearfully on the couch.

As for the Writer, after settling in the house (which apparently belongs to a friend), he shaves his head completely to avoid being easily recognized, and tries to work on a script, although it is unclear how he will manage to realize this as a film under his current circumstances.

One night during a thunderstorm, the Writer’s carefully constructed isolation is suddenly violated when a man and a woman appear in his doorway. Malika (Maryam Moghadam) and her brother Reza (Hadi Saeedi) are also on the run, after an illegal beach party involving alcohol has been raided by the police. Despite the Writer’s strenuous objections, they force their way into his house so they can dry off from the storm. Reza leaves to look for a car they can escape in while he leaves Malika with the Writer, warning him as he parts that Malika is suicidal and so must be closely watched. The Writer’s already high level of fear and paranoia only increases with Malika’s presence, as she asks him prying questions and seems more than she appears to be. The Writer begins to suspect that Malika is actually part of the secret police and may even be partly responsible for the Writer’s current predicament.

However, Malika suddenly and mysteriously vanishes, while Reza never returns. The Writer nervously records his recollections of these occurrences on his cell phone, when he hears loud crashes in the house. The sounds indicate that the home has suddenly been invaded by thieves; the Writer hides in a room with Boy while the house is ransacked.

After this chaos ends, “Closed Curtain” makes a startling switch, which recalls his earlier film “The Mirror.” Here, the fictional story we have been seeing so far suddenly shatters, and we see Jafar Panahi himself enter the house, walking around to reveal posters of his previous films, cruel reminders of the rich creative life that has now been denied him. Panahi walks around the house, in a moody, melancholy state, chatting with his film crew and with workers repairing his broken window. The Writer and Boy aren’t seen again, but Panahi still wanders in this blurred space between fiction and reality where, Pirandello-like, he interacts with his fictional creations. Malika appears again, ghost-like, hovering around Panahi’s consciousness, symbolizing his psychological despair at being confined to his home, not allowed to create freely. Malika is also a siren, tempting him toward suicide, encouraging him to follow her and end it all by walking into the sea. In one scene, Panahi seems to do this, but then the tape of this act rewinds, reversing this action.

“Closed Curtain” is a deeply melancholic and hermetic film, its defiance of the authorities represented by its very existence, as well as its wide screenings at festivals, tempered by its dark moodiness. Panahi’s ideas and images never fully cohere or allow us to emotionally identify with Panahi or his characters, but maybe that’s not really the point here. Even though fictional characters figure here, making the film, at least in its first half, feel like more of a conventional feature than “This Is Not a Film” was, “Closed Curtain” is as much a penetrating self-portrait as that previous work. Panahi reportedly began this film while in the midst of a deep depression, which lifted when he finished it. “Closed Curtain,” notwithstanding its overwhelming feeling of despair, still strikes a blow for creative expression and a refusal to accept artistic restrictions by the state.

The Iranian government continues to punish and censure its artists, and the creators of “Closed Curtain” are, sadly, no exception. Panahi still continues to suffer his filmmaking ban; he is no longer under house arrest, but he is forbidden to speak to journalists or openly engage in any sort of media activity. Also, two of the actors, Kamboziya Partovi and Maryam Moghadam, have had their passports confiscated to prevent them from promoting “Closed Curtain” abroad. Despite these efforts to suppress this work, “Closed Curtain” is now out in the world, and nothing can be done to stop it. It is not only of great value as a fascinating, if challenging and often baffling work of art, but its very existence serves as an inspiration to all those who continue to express themselves artistically despite facing great dangers and personal risks.

“Closed Curtain” screens at the San Diego Asian Film Festival on November 12 at 8:35 p.m. For more information, visit the festival’s website.