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Screening alongside Dark Blood in Berlin was another film whose extenuating circumstances tested the ability of many critics and reporters to be honest about the actual merits of what was on the screen. Entitled Closed Curtain, it is the latest feature by embattled Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who continues to suffer a 20-year, government-imposed ban on both his filmmaking and his ability to leave the country. (In Berlin, Panahi was represented by a life-size cardboard cutout situated on the red carpet of the Berlinale Palast -- which, somewhat disconcertingly, quickly became a photo op for no small number of media and other festivalgoers.)
Since the ban, Panahi has kept working clandestinely: In 2010, without ever leaving home, he made the essay film This Is Not a Film, an ingenious, slyly comic and poignant account of his perilous situation and his undulled creative spirit. Famously smuggled out of Iran on a portable hard drive concealed inside a cake, it was shown to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival and subsequently released in many countries (placing fifth in the Village Voice's 2012 film poll). Now, with Closed Curtain, Panahi has managed to lob another bottled message out into the world, but this time the bottle seems more noteworthy than the message itself.
Set entirely within a spacious beach house abutting the Caspian Sea, Closed Curtain begins with a long scene of a man arriving by taxi, then immediately proceeding to hang heavy black curtains on all the windows, take a shower and shave his head completely bald. Clearly, the man (played by filmmaker Kamboziya Partovi, who shares directing credit with Panahi) is hiding out from something, through it takes a while for us to learn exactly what. One clue arrives in the form of a TV news report about the banning in Iran of dog ownership, dogs being deemed "unclean" under Islamic law -- a report gazed upon quizzically by the man's own brown-haired, floppy-eared mutt. Then, just as man and dog seem acclimated to their new surroundings -- and the man, who is revealed to be a screenwriter, begins to write -- two intruders appear at the door. A woman (Maryam Moghadam) and her brother claim to be on the run from police after the raid of a nearby beach party, and the brother begs the writer to let his sister stay in the house until he can safely retrieve her – but be careful, he adds, she has a habit of trying to kill herself.
So for a while Closed Curtain makes a diverting guessing game out of the true nature of these characters and their motivations – one that at times recalls the vengeful dinner party from Roman Polanski's Death and the Maiden. The women (who is known only as "the girl") seems to be more than just a random visitor – she knows things about the writer and why he, too, is on the run. Then, just as quickly as she appeared, she vanishes, leaving us to ponder whether she was ever really there in the first place. About halfway into Panahi's great 1997 film The Mirror, there is an unforgettable moment in which the film's protagonist, a young girl whose mother has forgotten to pick her up from school, turns to the camera and says she doesn't want to be in the film anymore, sending Panahi and his crew scurrying after her. At roughly the same moment in Closed Curtain, Panahi himself appears, pulling down the blackout curtains to reveal that this is in fact his beach house, and furthering the suggestion that everything we have seen up to this point has been a projection of Panahi's depressive imagination.
It's hard to fault Panahi for feeling depressed, of course -- he's had his livelihood forcibly stripped from him at what should be the peak of his career -- and it's easy to see how Closed Curtain might have been a provocative allegory not only for Panahi's own experience but also for the many layers of censorship, oppression and persecution in contemporary Iranian society. These same concerns, of course, were central to This Is Not a Film and to other, earlier Panahi films such as Offside, which depicted the efforts of a group of wily female soccer fans to gain entrance to a male-only World Cup qualifying match, and The Circle, about the intersecting fates of a group of female prison inmates. But where those films were graced with a deceptively light touch and Panahi's often-dazzling gift for elliptical narrative construction, Closed Curtain feels leaden with self-conscious metaphor, and even self-pity.
For most of the movie's second half, Panahi sulks about the house, gazing up at the large framed posters for his films and making tea for the repairmen who come to mend a shattered glass door. (The film offers several possible explanations for how said door became broken, suggesting that this, too, is some kind of symbol.) Periodically, the screenwriter and the mysterious woman reappear, unseen by Panahi, to comment on the action, the woman hovering like an angel of death, proposing that Panahi simply end his woes by walking into the sea. Yet, without taking anything away from the seriousness of Panahi's situation, it bears mentioning that he is not the first filmmaker to suffer the reprisals of an unfriendly regime. In his country alone, directors Bahman Farmanara and Bahman Ghobadi have been banned at various times from making films, as were Chinese directors Tian Zhuangzhuang in the 1990s and Lou Ye in the 2000s, and multiple Czech and Polish filmmakers during the years of the Eastern Bloc. Perhaps most analogous to Panahi's case is that of the Turkish director Yilmaz Güney, who directed several films by proxy from the jail cell where he spent a decade on various charges, including anarchist studies and murder, before escaping to France. Perhaps some of those directors also wanted to walk into the sea, but the films they made, like This Is Not a Film, suggested otherwise, that no amount of tampering could extinguish their creative fire.
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