In 2010, Iran angered the international film community by imprisoning acclaimed director Jafar Panahi. Accused of promoting propaganda critical of the country, he was sentenced to house arrest for six years and barred from filmmaking for 20 years. That sentence didn’t stop Panahi, however, who in 2011 made the covert documentary This Is Not a Film about his house arrest. His follow-up film continues in the same vein; it’s an unconventional narrative that liberally works in metaphors and symbols. Like Inland Empire or Synecdoche, New York, Closed Curtain examines the very nature of storytelling in a twisting, postmodern way. But even more than those films, Panahi’s movie is deeply pessimistic about art’s ability to repair the problems that real life presents.
Directed by Panahi and co-star Kambozia Partovi (from a script by Panahi), Closed Curtain announces its autobiographical nature rather early on. An unnamed screenwriter (Partovi) is ensconced in his villa while struggling with a new story. The country has recently outlawed dogs in public, so the writer must keep his beloved pooch indoors with him at all times. In a sense, they’re both in hiding from the outside world.
Though the writer is sure he locked the front door, a brother (Hadi Saeedi) and sister (Maryam Moqadam) appear out of nowhere, insisting that the door was open. They’re on the run, and the brother soon must depart, asking the writer to watch after his sister, who’s suicidal.
Because of the almost dreamlike logic of the story—how did the brother and sister just show up inside the house?—it’s no surprise that Panahi is less interested in plot as he is in working through personal issues. He has said that he was depressed when he decided to write Closed Curtain, and the film bears that out. This is the work of a man in crisis, albeit one that’s far more upsetting than simply run-of-the-mill writer’s block. Throughout Closed Curtain, allusions to being trapped, closed-off and imprisoned abound, and by the time Panahi appears in the narrative, essentially playing himself, there’s very little doubt that the movie means to be a poetic expression of the filmmaker’s anxiety in the face of his house arrest and uncertain artistic future. (One of the characters comments that no one can create without ever going outside and interacting with regular life: Panahi’s hermetically-sealed film both suffers from this problem and acknowledges its negative impact on the drama.)
Closed Curtain can’t entirely escape the limitations of its house-of-mirrors construction. Panahi’s “characters” end up being little more than stand-ins for certain aspects of his personality, and their conversations can occasionally feel like the didactic banter of opposing worldviews. But such weaknesses cannot diminish the poignancy of Panahi’s dilemma. If This Is Not a Film had a wry, defiant streak to it, Closed Curtain possesses far less bravado. While it would be simplistic to use the movie as an emotional snapshot of its creator, Panahi here seems far sadder and more disillusioned by his predicament, the length of his house arrest and the restrictions on his freedom weighing far heavier on him. When the Panahi “character” fears he may be suicidal like the sister, it doesn’t seem melodramatic or self-indulgent. In the film, art eventually finds a way through the melancholy. Let’s hope the same is true in Panahi’s own life.
Directors: Jafar Panahi, Kambozia Partovi
Writer: Jafar Panahi
Starring: Maryam Moghadam, Jafar Panahi, Kambozia Partovi, Hadi Saeedi
Screening at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival