Film Review: Closed Curtain

Closed Curtain is the second movie in Jafar Panah's ongoing defiance of the filmmaking ban imposed on him in Iran, the title a metaphor for his contemplation of oblivion.

The largest presence in Closed Curtain is not a curtain. It is the abyss. And, in the film as well as in real life, it lies just outside the barred windows of Jafar Panahi’s beach house.

The Iranian writer-director’s previous movie, This Is Not a Film (2011), was shot entirely inside his Tehran apartment. He was under house arrest at the time for creating “propaganda” against the government. Panahi’s doppelgänger in that film is Igi, his daughter’s pet iguana. Igi is in an unfamiliar place, too, but he is not in danger—until a neighbor and her dog show up, sending the herbivore fleeing for cover. In Closed Curtain, an unnamed writer arrives at a seaside villa with a dog concealed inside a duffel bag. Dogs have long been deemed unclean animals by Iran’s clerics. They were tolerated until recently, when the regime began confiscating them from their owners and, as we learn later in the film, slaughtering them. A graphic TV report airs as “Boy,” the writer’s dog, looks on.

If at first we think that Panahi is carrying a metaphor too far—did the dog have Igi for lunch?—we later realize he is simply reminding himself that he is not alone in his persecution. Now, Panahi is under a 20-year ban from filmmaking, and cannot travel outside of Iran. The dogs notwithstanding, dozens of socially conscious Iranian filmmakers whose movies screen abroad are condemned by the regime each year and, like Mohammad Rasulov (Goodbye, 2011), are arrested and given jail terms. Panahi’s lead actors in Closed Curtain, Kambozia Partovi and Maryam Moghadam, had their passports confiscated by the Iranian government after the movie’s Berlin Film Festival premiere.

Partovi, who is a writer-director (Café Transit) in his own right, was Panahi’s screenwriter on The Circle. Here, he is quite effective as the writer who is hoping to work in secret and without interruptions. In the opening scenes, after letting “Boy” out of his bag, he closes all the curtains against the beach house’s unfettered views of the ocean on one side and gardens on the other. He then tacks black fabric over them, shaves his head, and settles down to write.

Panahi has not directed a feature-length narrative film since Offside (2006). It is about girls who dress up as boys in the hopes of attending a soccer game and was, ironically, his most optimistic movie—although no less incisive a critique of the Iranian regime than The Circle (2000), about women prisoners, and Crimson Gold (2003), about a pizza delivery guy on the edge. This Is Not a Film (2011), made in collaboration with Mojtaba Mirtahmasba, premiered at Cannes. It was said to have been smuggled into France on a flash drive hidden inside a cake. No one has reported how Closed Curtain, awarded the Silver Bear (for best screenplay) in Berlin, got to that city.

We never learn why the writer in Closed Curtain acts so strangely; we assume he is being pursued by the authorities, and not just because he owns a dog. The night after his arrival, he unlocks the door that leads to the beach. He ventures just past it, in order to clean Boy’s litter box. That is when a young woman and her brother slip into his house. He tries to get rid of them until the woman, Melika (Moghadam), asks if she can dry her clothes. She went into the sea to escape the police who were rounding up people at a beach party. (Such mixed-gender public gatherings are prohibited in Iran.) The brother promises to come back for Melika, and tells the writer to look after her, as she has attempted suicide in the past.

The writer relents, but then regrets his decision as Melika finds every opportunity to make it impossible for him to write. In Panahi’s disjointed, absurdist drama, she represents the writer’s greatest fear, that he is unable to work. She is the writer’s “character,” as much as she is Panahi’s, a manifestation of what the filmmaker views as the only other choice if he can no longer make movies. Neither of them can decide what to do with her. At one point, Melika runs from window to window, pulling down the black fabric and flinging aside the draperies, telling the writer that he has no choice but to confront the abyss. She then sets up his cellphone camera to record her as she walks slowly across the beach, and into the sea, disappearing below the waves.

Panahi himself soon enters the movie, and finds that a window of his beach house has been shattered. The writer and Melika linger after his arrival, sometimes as disembodied voices, talking about whether or not they will survive. Panahi does not see or hear them, although when he makes tea, he fills two glasses and a cup, a symbolic acknowledgment that they are rattling around in his head. Eventually, the writer and Boy disappear, but Melika reappears after her suicide. When Panahi opens the door to leave his home, she is sitting on a nearby staircase. In the future, he may revisit her and the oubliette she represents.

Much of Closed Curtain refers obliquely to the Kafkaesque circumstances of Panahi’s existence, and more obviously and eloquently to his fractured creative process. While it is rife with desolation, there are signs of hope—for instance, in the appearance of a woman and her young son. She is looking for her sister who did not return home last night. Their brother said that the girl found shelter in Panahi’s home, an obvious reference to Melika. Panahi replies that there is no one with him, and that he just got there. Before he can send them away, the boy slips in and confirms that the sister is not hiding in the house. Panahi never connects the broken window with the sister who may, in her desperation, have broken into his villa, although on another level this instance of synchronicity in the film illustrates that Panahi is reflecting on his own psychological process, which is how an artist makes art.

Near the end of the movie, the caretaker of the resort community, who brought workers to repair the window, tries to comfort the filmmaker whose distress is apparent to him. He tells Panahi that there is more to life than work, and the writer-director replies, “But those things are foreign to me.” If Closed Curtain seems at times too self-reflexive, it is Panahi’s despair which rescues the movie, exquisite in its rendering, and terrifying for its ability to clutch at the soul.

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