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Banished for Life

MOVIE REVIEW
Closed Curtain (2013)

Closed-curtain-movie-review-jafar-panahi
57th BFI London Film Festival

Most people reading this will be aware of the backstory by now: Director Jafar Panahi has been under house arrest and banned from filmmaking since 2010 for supposedly inciting insurrectionary activities in Iran. “Closed Curtain” is the second film he’s managed to direct while under house arrest (with the collaboration of Kambuzia Partovi) and again managed to miraculously smuggle out of Iran for the benefit of international audiences.

The first one was “This Is Not a Film” (made with a different co-director, Mojtaba Mirtahmasb), and the early opinion on “Closed Curtain” seems to be that Mr. Panahi’s second attempt isn’t as interesting as the first. The novelty has worn off! The fact that such a fascinating film could be taken for granted in such a way suggests much about the impossibly high standards to which Iranian cinema is now held. We all, after all, have our expectations from Iranian cinema, which include in no particular order: the intermingling of documentary and narrative and resulting metatextual complexity, bold Brechtian devices, startlingly feminist viewpoints, sensational performances from amateur child actors, closeted allegories about Iranian society, submerged critiques of the ruling clerical elite and — if possible — all of the above conveyed with an unusual degree of heart, warmth and universality.

I can confirm that “Closed Curtain” conforms satisfyingly to many of the tenets of this model. Perhaps what’s unsatisfying for some critics is that Mr. Panahi attempts to cram in too many of these Iranian cinematic traits. The first half hour expertly tackles a key one - that of providing a coded riposte to perceived Iranian oppression — as it carefully reveals the story of a writer hiding his dog from the authorities. What kind of crazed dystopian society is this in which dogs are banned? In reality some restrictions have been imposed on dogs in Iran’s public spaces, but Mr. Panahi extends the sinister reach of his exaggerated regime into the private home (which in Mr. Panahi’s personal case represents his entire universe).

The sci-fi-like tone develops when a young couple mysteriously arrives at the writer’s door, begging for sanctuary from the clutches of mysterious, dark government forces. It’s at this point, just as the film is threatening to actually become rather exciting, that Mr. Panahi pulls the Persian rug from beneath us. First of all the young man inexplicably leaves and doesn’t return. Even more mysteriously the woman disappears and appears again, acting as if nothing has happened.

In a key scene in the film, the writer tries to comprehend how his young charge could have disappeared by retracing his actions up until the moment of her vanishing, filming it on his mobile phone. As we’re watching this reconstruction, it becomes noticeable that the character isn’t facing at the correct angle to be looking into his mobile phone; his eyes seem to be drawn to other presences. Later on we see this scene again from a different angle, clarifying this moment of ambiguity and reaffirming Mr. Panahi’s loyalty to one of the cornerstone themes of Iranian cinema: How reconstructions can construct new fictions and realities, rather than revealing veracities.

If the fourth wall had been beginning to crumble at this point, Mr. Panahi very soon smashes it to the ground completely. It may count as a spoiler to reveal that Mr. Panahi himself makes an onscreen appearance, but his entrance is so unexpectedly, nonchalantly brilliant I can’t leave it unmentioned. His unassuming amble into the frame so superbly dismantles any prior pretense of a straightforward narrative that it has to count as one of cinema’s classic onscreen entrances (if one is aware of Mr. Panahi’s films and history), ranking alongside that of Orson Welles in "The Third Man" in its impish reveal of a covert but implicitly authorial figure.

From this point forward, the film’s formal unraveling continues apace as the writer’s apartment evolves from fictional rabbit-hole sanctuary to a reality-impinging repository of specters from Mr. Panahi’s consciousness. Characters dreamt up by the director lounge around, unsure what to do because Mr. Panahi’s stifled and self-doubting creativity has come to a standstill; the creator and his creations both trapped in a shared purgatorial realm of artistic funk.

If it sounds like Mr. Panahi is simply giving up the ghost(s) and dissembling his movie because he doesn’t know how to end it, in a style more befitting of comedy satires like “Blazing Saddles” or “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” then the opposite is true. Mr. Panahi couldn’t be plainer: This intentionally disruptive and disrupted work is a necessary product of his creative environment. And that’s why I think it works better than “This Is Not a Film”, which — clever though it was — eventually shriveled into a series of less and less cinematic conversations, threatening to embody its own title literally. “Closed Curtain” is instead fully engaged with both Mr. Panahi’s history and that of Iranian cinema; for instance, the closed shutters at the end of the film echoing the shop front from the opening scene of “Crimson Gold” with melancholy refrain.

If some may find the first act’s tantalizing glimpse of a promising story to be a frustrating denial of audience expectation, then that may be an unfortunately necessary process the viewer has go through in order to empathize with Mr. Panahi’s predicament. He’s simply passing on the pain in this anguished howl of rage against enforced inertia.

CLOSED CURTAIN

Opens on July 9, 2014 in New York

Directed by Jafar Panahi and Kambuzia Partovi; produced, written and edited by Mr. Panahi; director of photography, Mohamad Reza Jahanpanah; released by Variance Films (United States). In Persian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 46 minutes. This film is not rated by M.P.A.A.

WITH: Mr. Partovi (Writer), Maryam Moqadam (the Girl), Mr. Panahi (Jafar Panahi), Hadi Saeedi (Girl’s Brother), Azadeh Torabi (Girl’s Sister) and Abolghasem Sobhani (Agha Olia).

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