(Dir. Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi, Iran, 2014)
An Isolated Artist
Jafar Panahi’s seventh feature film and second under his official ban from filmmaking Closed Curtain is not the film he wanted to make. No, it’s clear from the subject matter of both this outing and its direct predecessor that these are the films he’s able to make given the tragic circumstances of his stunted career. The pair unmistakably marks a necessary change in the trajectory of Panahi’s oeuvre, and yet This Is Not a Film and Closed Curtain represent two of his best works thus far as well as remarkable achievements of cinema in general. To view them divorced from the reason why they exist is impossible, but it’s this unique aspect of their conception – a rare glimpse of a defiant artist continuing to create even without the adequate resources to do so – that place them in a class of their own within the world of cinema. And still, it’s not difficult to imagine Panahi would much rather be shooting the proper follow-up to 2006’s lauded Offside.
Closed Curtain is a delightfully complex filmic experiment, perhaps best understood as a companion piece to This Is Not a Film, but it’s also, crucially, a break from that non-film. In matters of form, Curtain abandons the video diary simplicity of its predecessor in favor of a narrative, until that too is wonderfully distorted in the film’s second half. And, though it continues in exploring the topic of Panahi’s ban and features the director himself as its primary subject, Curtain also distinctly represents a shift in tone and intent. If This Is Not a Film featured the director in limbo, Curtain deals primarily with the aftermath of his verdict. There’s no longer any question of Panahi’s undetermined fate, and thus his latest may stand as the true beginning of a new direction in his filmmaking; one influenced by its creator’s own experience. It should come as no surprise then that it’s also easily Panahi’s most personal film to date. There’s certainly an air of pervasive melancholy hanging over the film, but Panahi’s too clever and gracious a filmmaker to settle for a mere sympathetic portraiture of a tortured artist. It’s an intimate and self-reflective work to be sure, but it’s a challenging and engaging experience for its viewers as well.
The film opens in fictional territory as an unnamed screenwriter arrives at a beautiful beachside villa on the Caspian Sea with his canine companion in tow. Panahi dispenses with subtlety in the film’s opening static shot – the camera captures this arrival in wide shot from within the house behind a closed gate. It aptly picks up almost exactly where This Is Not a Film leaves off – Panahi behind the camera kept from the world outside, confined to his own home. There isn’t a single shot captured from outside the house in the entirety of the film. Of course, the secret production of the project necessitates this practical decision, but it also lends credence to the artistic asphyxiation Panahi suffers unable to shoot when and where he pleases.
Once inside, the writer (played by Panahi’s co-director Kambuzia Partovi) hurriedly pulls the curtains shut throughout the house, begins hanging his own darker drapes, and dims the lights. He hides from something, but Panahi doesn’t reveal from what. The writer goes about his own routine and sits down to write, but something always distracts him. In one instance, his dog named Boy switches on the television. Images of bloodied and executed dogs linger on the screen as voiceover narration relays some vague explanation as to why the animal is no longer welcome in this Islamic State. The writer quickly mutes the program and plucks the batteries from the remote to restore quiet. The brief sequence provides some context for this character’s need to flee and seek solitude, but one gets the sense Panahi has more on his mind than animal rights (not in any way, however, to diminish that important cause).
The pair’s hidden fortress is soon breached when the writer accidentally and only momentarily leaves the front door ajar when emptying Boy’s litter box. Turning around the man comes unexpectedly face to face with a worried-looking man and woman (Hadi Saeedi and Maryam Moqadam) standing inside the doorway. The three dispense with pleasantries and the intruders merely identify themselves as fugitives. And, just as quickly as they arrive, the man leaves, for reasons not entirely explained, charging the writer with keeping his sister safe and from trying to kill herself until he returns. The writer reluctantly agrees though he remains utterly suspicious of this mysterious newcomer as he tries to get back to writing. The two engage in some conversation, and though he does ask her a few questions regarding her identity and more than once begs her to leave, he seems less interested in why she’s there than we might be – another sign that Panahi has quite a bit more up his sleeve. When the young Melika disappears suddenly, Curtain throws off the façade of a straightforward narrative altogether.
She reappears not long after, but her reentry into the story marks a significant shift in both tone and narrative. As she determinedly tears down the curtains covering not only the villa’s enormous windows, but large-scale posters of Panahi’s previous works hanging from the wall too, Panahi himself casually walks into the frame. From here onward, it becomes clear that Curtain is really more about him and has been since the beginning. The writer and Melika retain their presence, but they become mere figments of Panahi’s imagination, projections from his psyche. The first portion of the film, then, plays out like some unfinished script with these two characters who take on another role once Panahi steps in front of the camera. The pair offers two distinct warring factions of the filmmaker’s thoughts as he grapples with the reality of a debilitating ban on his craft. The writer determines to keep writing even if forced to do so behind closed curtains. In contrast, Melika, described as “desperation itself,” may be best understood as Panahi’s documented depression and thoughts of suicide following his sentencing. Both seem to claim to represent a version of freedom – the writer continues to work, the woman sees death as the only viable way out of this artistic prison – but Panahi reveals the limits of their viewpoints: the writer’s circumstances inhibit his writing, the woman’s stance obviously offers no solution.
The remainder of the film follows Panahi and his interactions with his neighbors and house guests, and an unexpected visit from Melika’s sister – a clever adherence to the film’s original, fictional storyline. All the while, the writer and the woman wonder aloud what Panahi might do. The film’s structure could be described as somewhat surreal in its less penetrable back half – the filmmaker watches a video on his iPhone of Melika wading into the Caspian Sea and disappearing under the surface urging him to do the same, a brief shot of Panahi following her instructions plays in reverse, and Panahi and his film crew are seen shooting a scene from earlier in the film. No doubt these narrative detours richen the film, but they also don’t demand explanation or outright interpretation. What we see in Closed Curtain is what its creator feels. And, oftentimes emotions are better left not so easily spelled out.
To be sure, the film’s pervading sentiment is sorrow, but there’s also an inkling of hope. In the end, Panahi packs up his bags and prepares to leave – abandoning any thoughts of ending his life and refusing to compromise his art in isolation. As his neighbor leaves in one scene he intones, “There’s more to life than work.” The thought is well-intentioned but misplaced. Panahi’s reply – “Yes, but those things are foreign to me” – and departure from the beachfront villa suggest an artist refusing to give up. Is he willing to go beyond the threshold of the barred gates at his home in Tehran from This Is Not a Film and the curtains that concealed his work in this film? The final moments of Closed Curtain seem to answer yes. What that means for the future of Panahi’s work is unknown, but the fact that his next film has already been completed and made its festival debut gives us fans hope enough. We, along with his closest friends and family, pray that this oppression ends long before the twenty years are up, but if Closed Curtain is any indication of what he can accomplish in the meantime, the future of Panahi’s cinema is bright indeed.