Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi continues to make movies. Caged in his perverse, Kafkaesque “larger prison,” Panahi faces a 20-year ban by the Iranian government on filmmaking, international travel, and interviews. He is hounded by a corps of eagerly punitive officials (contributors to both of his post-ban films have seen their passports confiscated). Yet Panahi continues to work in secret, smuggling final cuts out to international audiences he cannot visit. The plight of the filmmaker, who was swept up and summarily sentenced like so many Iranian dissidents during 2009’s Green Movement, recalls the repression of Victor Jara, the Chilean poet and musician whose hands were smashed before being executed during Pinochet’s coup, allegedly so he could never play again.
The Iranian government’s hope must be that Panahi will be ground down, exhausted into resignation by his own efforts to defy the edict. But his post-ban films whirl with a cerebral and brave energy. Panahi shot the first one, This Is Not a Film, entirely in his Tehran apartment in 2010 while awaiting the appeal of his six-year prison sentence and 20-year ban for such boilerplate crimes as antigovernment propaganda and endangering national security. It is bold, witty, and reflective, simultaneously contemplating and flouting a life in which he is not a filmmaker. The movie was hidden inside a birthday cake and flown out to the festival circuit.
Panahi’s follow-up and newly released film, Closed Curtain, was clandestinely produced in his Caspian Sea villa. It’s a departure from the documentary-like, in-the-moment musings of This Is Not a Film. Even more so, it’s a departure from the open, social worlds of his pre-ban films such as The White Balloon and The Circle.
Beginning and ending with long shots looking out from the front, gated window of the seaside building, the movie is bookended by the beauty, boredom, and danger of looking. An unnamed man — a writer, we later learn; in fact he’s Kambozia Partovi, the co-director of the film — enters the building and immediately begins blocking out all the windows. With him is an adorable and expressive dog, Boy. Dogs are banned outdoors, explains a brutal television show, which features the animals being beaten and killed in the streets. This ban causes the man to take up his hermitage.
Breaking his peaceful, paranoid existence, a brother and sister enter the home, seeking refuge from the police who are sweeping the area and looking to arrest everyone from a nearby beach party. And so Melika (Maryam Moqadam), a suicidal and increasingly mysterious young woman, enters the story; her brother leaves to find a car.
At this point, the film shifts towards its layered and cryptic second half. Melika appears and disappears, fiendishly disturbing the writer’s work — tossing his papers, ripping down window blinds, cynically speaking of some known but unseen project. “You write it, and he films it,” she says. Thieves or the authorities or someone else break into the house, and then a strange thing happens: Panahi, as if walking out of a mirror, enters the film. He observes that his home was just ransacked, and makes no mention or thought of the previous characters, who seem to suddenly exist in separate, parallel world. He proceeds to mundanely meet with neighbors, have the window repaired. Watching recordings on an iPhone, he sees behind-the-scenes footage of the crew shooting a moment from earlier in the movie, as well as shots of Melika and him walking into the sea. He rewinds this last image, which seems to represent cinema’s ability to freely imagine and transcend reality, while never completely breaking free of its psychological and creative origins.
With Closed Curtain, Panahi sinks further into his limbo existence. (“Making these films is illegal, but so far the Islamic republic has shown patience towards such illegal acts,” the Iranian cinema chief and deputy culture minister balefully stated in protest of Closed Curtain’s inclusion at the Berlin Film Festival.) The movie sweeps with a mysterious depth, the product of a filmmaker continuing to toil at his craft as his life and opportunities collapse and begin to successively, confusingly overlap. Mirrors and overlapping narrative layers add to the sense of enigmatic allegory. With each project the effects of state repression seem to grow increasingly internalized; it’s impossible to parse the film from the ban, the director from the victim, the work from the life. Are the writer and the woman real? Or are they part of a film that wryly, eerily denies both the ban and the existence of the film itself, which Panahi cannot technically make?
It’s almost a ghost story of an artist haunted, dissociated from his art, or a Pirandello play, as others have noted. Closed Curtain may try your patience with its obliqueness, and it’s easy, too, to focus on his plight, hoping for the ban to end. But, still bold, still thoughtful, still witty, still confined, Panahi has made a film on the blessing and curse of creative vision.
The camera seems to most parallel his station. Immensely sensitive to the world inside and outside of the villa, it conspicuously never leaves the building. “There’s more to life than work; there are other things, too,” a neighbor tells Panahi at one point. He replies, “Yes, but those things are foreign to me.”