The artist’s need to engage in the creative process is again the theme of Jafar Panahi’s behind-the-censors but over-the-radar reverie “Closed Curtain.” More layered than “This Is Not a Film” and unlikely to achieve similar popularity, this latest technically forbidden work by the world’s most famous dissident filmmaker, in collaboration with Kamboziya Partovi, is a Pirandello-inspired investigation of the ramifications of dissidence, the filmmaking process and several other ingredients whose elements invite multiple interpretations. Less satisfying than his previous pic, yet still a bold, melancholy statement, “Closed Curtain” will play fests and specialty houses thanks to Panahi’s cause-celebre status.
Inevitably Panahi’s output while under a ban from filmmaking will be judged through the lens of his injunction, yet this is a sophisticated artist who doesn’t need patronizing. In many ways, he’s inherited the mantle of Soviet-bloc authors by exploring the psyche of creativity under constraint, on one level limited to the individual but also, by implication, commenting on its impact on society at large. As a central character in both films, Panahi maintains a personal view, though with “Closed Curtain,” he’s expanded the number of players, and while many of them personify components of his imagination, they also represent something greater than the individual.
Whereas “This Is Not a Film” was lensed in the director’s city apartment, here the pic takes place entirely in his three-story beach house. The opening shot of the sea seen through the house’s locked gates solidifies the sense of the captive mind, and from there, the pic continually toys with concepts of freedom and restriction, combining fictional and documentary elements. A writer (“Border Cafe” director Partovi) enters the house, takes his dog out of a zippered bag and puts up black-out curtains.
After a day alone, he’s disturbed by the unwanted arrival of Melika (Maryam Moghadam) and Reza (Hadi Saeedi), a sister and brother demanding protection from cops who’ve surrounded the place. The writer wants to kick them out but succumbs to pressure and reluctantly lets the suicide-prone Melika stay when Reza leaves. It feels as if she’s been there before, and their entire interaction has a cryptic quality, with suggestions that she may be a member of the secret police.
An hour into the film, Panahi himself appears in the house, first seen through a mirror (after he takes down a hanging sheet and exposes his movie posters do we clue in to the mirror image). The writer and Melika are still in the house, and the writer is frustrated at the interruptions and distractions, a frustration that obviously relates to the helmer’s own mental state — especially clear when Melika asks: “Why keep on writing? Who’ll make it into a movie?” It’s a taunt that comes as much from the authorities as from Panahi’s own self-doubt.
The house itself can be interpreted as the helmer’s mind, with curtains closed and windows shuttered, opened or smashed. All readings are likely correct here, and scenes of the characters filming themselves, or being filmed by a crew, enhance the sensation of a balancing act between the conscious and subconscious selves. Also obliquely addressed is encroaching paranoia, inevitable given Panahi’s restricted life, and his questioning whether he can fairly depict reality in such an unreal situation.
Clear influences are Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author” (in the occasional use of mirrors, for instance), as well as the theater of the absurd. But the multitude of thematic levels has the overall effect of weakening the film’s impact.
Panahi even includes a direct criticism of the Iranian regime, when the writer’s dog is seen watching news footage of a disturbing roundup and killing of canines, the result of hardliners enforcing the concept of the animals as unclean. Kind neighbors, representing people unbowed by the regime, visit Panahi and bring him food; glaziers come to fix a broken glass door, one apologetically afraid to have his photo taken with the director.
Dialogue was largely written by Panahi, with Partovi credited as scripter for conversations between the main character and Melika. The film’s matte visuals have a shallow focus (surely another statement about limited vision in a restricted environment), except for shots looking toward the beach; sound work can feel hollow.