Jafar Panahi continues to defy the 20-year ban on film-making imposed on him by the Iranian government with a new feature, co-directed and starring his colleague and frequent collaborator Kambozia Partovi, and it is an intriguing magnification of his last illicit achievement, This Is Not A Film (2011). That title was wittily, bitterly disingenuous, whereas Closed Curtain specifically evokes the shut-in existence both of the writer protagonist of the film’s first half, and that of the film-maker himself. There is an opposite sense as well, however, since more even than the previous experiment, this film both opens itself to what kind of cinema can be made under such straitened circumstances, and opens the consciousness of its writer-director; and, despite his palpable anguish, the curtain of possibility remains open at the end.
Confined once again to a single interior location – this time Panahi’s remote seaside villa (which the camera pointedly never leaves for almost the entirety of the film), the film begins with a very long shot through barred windows. This and the initial story are all that is needed to emphasize the notion of imprisonment. A man (Partovi) arrives with a dog in his hold-all. Dog-ownership, as we learn from a TV snippet, is banned in Iran (true), so this man, a writer, is in hiding.
The first surprise is a pair of fugitive visitors whose circumstances are obfuscated, their pursuers shadowy (a beach party with alcohol, it seems, was broken up by police). The second surprise is that around the halfway mark the ‘reality’ of the film is turned on its head as Panahi makes a stunningly understated and unexpected entrance, stepping across a distinctive threshold as though through a mirror, photographed through the until-then tantalizingly under-used giant mirror of the villa’s second-story living room no less.
This is a point much like that in This Is Not A Film when Panahi abruptly gives up his enactment of the script he was going to make next, for what is the point of telling a story with no actors or sets but tape on the floor? It is as though he loses his faith in fiction itself and that, perhaps, the experience of making This Is Not A Film revealed that the most fruitful exploration he can make is of himself.
So what we are now to make of the writer and the young woman who arrived in the night is not simple. They start to occupy shifting (but not necessarily contradictory) allegorical roles, as detached fictional characters, and as projections of Panahi’s psyche, elements to be gotten rid of or embraced, as is suggested in their increasingly ghostly voiceovers. They are elements with which the film-maker is reluctant to part, particularly Maryam Moqadam’s Melika, with her wide eyes pleading to be noticed as Panahi makes his resolution at the end.
In these final moments it is with her and her walk into the sea that he has been most fascinated, the bleak, suicidal melancholy she projects, so tempting and difficult to overcome, but they have no direct contact. She in turn is given to intriguing pronouncements (to the writer) such as “Why am I even talking to you? I should use a different language” and “One of us must leave so he knows what to do.” They represent unspecified, conflicting elements of Panahi’s creative life (for he tells his neighbour that things outside of work mean nothing to him) and it is this struggle, literally fatal at one point, although that reveals itself to be a fiction, that illuminates Panahi’s glumness and lends the film a tragic, moving power.
Not that this is a sob-story of special pleading, despite Panahi’s professed depression during the shoot. Specific reference to his situation is played almost for a laugh when a glazier declines to have his picture taken with the director because for him, it is “too risky”. The film’s most powerful direct comment on all this comes near the beginning in a rather stunning shot of the writer and his dog sitting before their large, blacked-out window that just happens to be the shape of a ‘scope frame: the logical final consequence of a mindset that can ban film-making: a black screen, the end of cinema.
The tricky play of various and possible realities, their obscure meanings, and the feeling that they vaguely have no final “truth”, is correlative with Panahi’s clearly conflicted feelings, and if he turns his back on bleakness at the end, what he accepts instead he seems to know is still a necessary compromise; under such circumstances, however, it is still some kind of victory. Even leaving aside the real-life situation, it is this which makes such a complex, confused and confusing film of highly restricted production circumstances an achievement more moving and personal, troubled and intriguing, even than his last.
AFI Fest 2013 Film Page: Closed Curtain (Parde)
Directors: Jafar Panahi, Kamboziya Partovi
Screenwriter: Jafar Panahi
Producer: Jafar Panahi
Executive Producer: Hadi Saeedi
Cinematographer: Mohamad Reza Jahanpanah
Editor: Jafar Panahi
Cast: Kamboziya Partovi, Maryam Moghadam, Jafar Panahi, Hadi Saeedi, Azadeh Torabi, Abolghasem Sobhani, Zeynab Kanoum