Jafar Panahi, Iran’s most famous (though by no means only) persecuted filmmaker who has been banned from filming by the Iranian government, offers a more experimental and distanced diary in exile than his 2011 This Is Not a Film. Made “secretly and without authorization” according to the press book, Closed Curtain is a moody, intellectually complex film that requires good will and brainwork on the part of the viewer to penetrate and enjoy. Its self-reflexive, Pirandellian side goes back to Six Characters in Search of an Author, while other parts are metaphorical references to Panahi’s 20-year ban from filmmaking and real-life depression. Co-directed by Kamboziya Partovi, who ably slips into the leading role of a screenwriter on the run, it’s not an easy film to relate to – in fact it deliberately short-circuits any emotional response from the audience– and will have to rely largely on Panahi’s reputation to get off the ground in foreign art venues.
Though not easy to unravel, the film’s complexity always comes back to concrete images, in this case, the rich interiors of a sprawling seaside villa whose spacious windows are unnaturally blacked out with heavy curtains. The film’s Persian title, Parde, also suggests the traditional miracle plays showing resistance against evil. In any case, there’s no mistaking the drawn curtains as a metaphor for Iran’s blacked-out cinema under heavy state censorship, of which Panahi is a prime victim. If the film has a message, it is that the curtains need to be thrown open and the reality of Iranian society shown.
The opening scenes are straightforward enough and hit an easy mark against one particular horror of the regime: Iran’s campaign against pet dogs, which are considered impure under Islamic Shariah law and banned. No subject could be better chosen to get audiences on the filmmaker’s side.
Framed through a barred window grate, a gray-haired man (Partovi) carrying a suitcase arrives by taxi in front of a spacious three-story villa overlooking the sea. (All the action will take place inside the house, and the camera will never leave its confines.) Once he is safely alone, he opens the suitcase and an adorable dog named Boy jumps out. They have escaped a police round-up and are in hiding. To make the point, a news report about dogs being brutally killed comes on TV, which Boy watches disconsolately.
The first thing the man does is to carefully nail black cloth over all the windows, to keep the house lights from being visible outside. Then he shaves his head, apparently to keep from being recognized. He is a professional screenwriter, and he tries to write while keeping a protective, paternal eye on his playful dog.
Suddenly, during a thunderstorm, he finds a man and woman standing in the doorway. The young strangers are also on the run from the police, who have cracked down on a beach party in which there were some drinks being passed around. Ignoring the man’s demand that they leave immediately, the boy goes to look for a car while the girl Melika (Maryam Moghadam) stays behind to change into dry clothes.
Adding to a difficult situation, the man is warned that Melika has attempted suicide on several occasions and to keep an eye on her. She speaks very theatrically and acts with maddening whimsy. Nor does she seem to tell the truth, which scares the paranoid writer even more. Could she be a police spy? And how did they get into the villa in the first place?
When the girl suddenly vanishes, the man tries to film his reconstruction of the facts on his cell phone. In terms of screen time, none of this seems very important or interesting, and for a while the story slips out of focus, until “reality” bursts into the villa in the form of thieves. After the ruckus, the familiar figure of Jafar Panahi steps onto the set and it’s clear that everything that has preceded this moment is “fiction” or better, a different level of fiction, a film within a film. The reality is that the director finds himself in exile in the gilded cage of his own posh villa, where giant foreign movie posters of his films like The Circle and The Mirror now appear on the walls, recalling his glorious past.
The man, the dog and the boy are gone. Still his fictional characters haunt him, especially Melika, who tempts him to follow her and drown in the sea. When the guardian of the villa, who obviously knows Panahi’s situation, suggests there’s more to life than work, the director replies curtly, “Those things are foreign to me.” This very confessional scene leaves an empty, aching feeling, the strongest emotion Panahi and Partovi allow to transpire in a sad, dark film.
While Moghadam’s status as a pure character keeps her at a distance from the audience, Partovi and the delightful Boy exude a natural warmth tinged with humor. Partovi, a noted director in his own right and co-scripter of The Circle and other major Iranian films, has a bewildered look that no one can blame him for.
Though clearly made on a shoestring, the film is elegantly shot, with each camera set-up carefully thought out. With its vast open spaces and complex architecture, the villa lends itself to cinematographer Mohamad Reza Jahanpanah’s lighting that changes from mood to mood.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition), Feb. 12, 2012.
Production company: Jafar Panahi Film Productions
Cast: Kamboziya Partovi, Maryam Moghadam, Jafar Panahi, Hadi Saeedi, Azadeh Toradi, Agha Olia, Zeynab Khanum
Directors: Jafar Panahi, Kamboziya Partovi
Screenwriter: Jafar Panahi
Producer: Jafar Panahi
Director of photography: Mohamad Reza Jahanpanah
Editor: Jafar Panahi
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