Under relaxed house arrest, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi bravely concedes that, at times during his incarceration, he’s worn down, tempted to end it all.
Closed Curtain, directed by Jafar Panahi. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, through August 24.
By Gerald Peary
Perhaps because of international pressure from filmmakers and film festivals, Iranian director Jafar Panahi has yet to start a six-year prison term ordered in 2010 for seditious “propaganda” (his movies, his public statements) against the Islamic government. The maker of such world masterpieces as The White Balloon and The Circle still walks free, sort of, under loose house arrest, which allows him to have both an apartment in Tehran and an actual house on the Caspian Sea. How he gets between them is unclear. His last work, This is Not a Film (2011), was shot at his place in Iran’s capital. His new work, Closed Curtain, occurs at his vacation home.
In addition to his jail sentence, Panahi is also banned from making films for twenty years. Yet here’s another one, perhaps secretly shot (though the names of actors and crew appear in the credits), and, as with This Is Not a Film, snuck out of Iran for the world to see. The two films are quietly enraged companion pieces, chamber dramas about what it feels like, up close, for Panahi to be in this frustrating, maddening, claustrophobic limbo.
Panahi doesn’t appear for the first hour of Closed Curtain, except that we assume he’s behind the camera. Instead, the main character is The Writer, Kambuzia Partovi, the co-scriptwriter and co-director of the film, playing a version of himself. He has the key to the home of an unnamed friend, and he arrives there secretly in a car, transporting a large zipper bag. He goes all through the house, anxiously drawing black curtains over every picture window. He opens the bag, and a sweet mongrel dog climbs out. We learn from a TV that “impure dogs” have been given a death sentence by the Islamic regime. There is horrific footage, seemingly authentic, of strays being murdered, having their throats slit. The dog with The Writer is his rescue. The Writer turns off the television so the dog won’t have to watch the slaughter. The curtains are shut so that the dog won’t be found.
The dog, Boy, obviously functions metaphorically in Closed Curtain, representing all those whom the religious state wishes to eradicate, especially human beings. A good metaphor has to be credible first on the literal level, and this one succeeds, as canines really are being killed. It’s not just a fanciful symbol from Panahi. Plus, Boy’s a great little dog, marvelously expressive, like the moment when he jumps up on a table with a ball in his mouth and, excitedly, paws at the writer to grab that ball and throw it to him. I wish I could have the same praise of The Girl (Maryam Moqudam), who bursts through the doors of this house, accompanied by The Girl’s Brother (Hadi Saeedi), both fleeing the police. The Girl’s Brother leaves her there, and, for the bulk of the movie, she floats about the apartment threatening suicide and perturbing The Writer. It’s not the actress’s fault, as she’s given little to do in her scenes, which are clumsy, melodramatic, flat.
In fact, all four principles are, intentionally, cutouts and pop-ups, meant to be considered in a meta-fictional way. Are they all creatures of The Writer, of the screenplay we see he’s working on? Including The Writer himself? Or are they in the imagination of Panahi, the filmmaker himself, who walks across one of the rooms sixty minutes into the movie, without having entered the house, without any of the others cognizant of him. It’s all very Six Characters in Search of an Author. A bit bloodless, and, until Panahi takes over on screen, not that involving. Except for the non-Pirandellian mutt.
The house turns out to be Panahi’s, and he becomes the lead in his movie for its last half hour, with The Writer and Boy conveniently vanishing into the air. As is often in Iranian films in general, and in Panahi’s also, energy comes with the entrance of the ordinary citizenry, screen amateurs who are refreshingly uninhibited about being filmed, about being their rough real selves. So it is in Closed Curtain, when a neighborhood woman brings Panahi a meal, when his big-bellied caretaker arrives with a couple of workers to fix a broken window. At those times, the movie becomes less stilted, more fun.
But there are poignant moments also, when Panahi’s hurt and loneliness become palpable, his yearning to be part of life. The filmmaker stares out of his window toward the sea, and then the camera leaps down to a water’s edge, where a man awaits a fleet of swans swimming his way. A lyrical sight which, in real life, the housebound filmmaker can never experience. But the sea also is an ominous place and, in one of her incarnations in the movie, The Girl becomes a symbol of Death, trying to lure Panahi to commit suicide by walking into the waters.
Panahi bravely concedes that, at times during his incarceration, he’s worn down, tempted to end it all. There is a scary shot where we see a Panahi stand-in, clothed, stepping into the Caspian and going deeper and deeper. But before drowning, a miracle: the footage we’ve just watched is run backwards, and the Panahi character returns to the shore. To continue the good fight. And we can assume, to provide us from Iran with more of his valiant films.
Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of 9 books on cinema, writer-director of the documentary For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.