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Arts & Culture

Review: 'Closed Curtain' Latest Fare From Iran's 'Wild Child'

 The Screenwriter and Melika in Jafer Panahi's new film "Closed Curtain"
Digital Gym
The Screenwriter and Melika in Jafer Panahi's new film "Closed Curtain"

A New Film From Banned Iranian Director Jafer Panahi

Jafer Panahi must have days when he wonders if he should have opted for exile from Iran. The Iranian director, well known for his charming and socially insightful films such as "Off-sides," has been a thorn in the side of the Iranian state. Too well known to be disappeared, too outspoken to let loose, Panahi has been butting heads with the Iranian establishment for years. The latest go-around in 2010 netted him a six-year jail sentence and a ban on making films, any film- for twenty years, effectively exiling the 54-year-old director from his beloved profession.

Panahi must have some pretty tough days.

But in true maverick fashion, Panahi has not taken his artistic exile lying down. While waiting the results of his appeal, Panahi made a video diary of his experiences stuck at home and aptly called it, “This Is Not A Film” (2011). Unlike Magritte, whose painting he references, Panahi had no official exhibition awaiting him.

Magritte, perhaps, would have appreciated the irony of Panahi’s solution — the video was smuggled out on a flashdrive hidden in a cake and screened to great acclaim throughout the West.

Companion viewing:

"Offisides"

"This Is Not A Film"

"No One Knows About Persian Cats"

The Iranian state was far from pleased.

Still under the ban, Panahi again has delved into his artistic exile to comment on creativity, censorship and society at large.

Unlike “This is Not a Film,” “Closed Curtain,” now screening at the Digital Gym, is a darker, less linear piece.

Panahi seems to be really feeling the ban in this new work that brings to mind the bifurcating worlds of Argentinian writer, Jorge Luis Borges and the unknowing spirits from “The Others.”

Alone, in a villa on The Caspian, a screenwriter (Kambozia Partovi), seeks refuge for himself and his dog, “Boy.” While the screenwriter appears to have somewhat fallen out of favor with the Iranian government, there is no question “Boy” definitely has with the religious authorities who are now trying to rid the country of dogs since they consider them unclean, under Muslim belief, and therefore subject to confiscation and execution.

The screenwriter retreats to the villa, drawing the curtains tight against possible surveillance, closing the world out, at least for now.

Of course, it doesn’t take long for interruptions to appear. The screenwriter finds himself dealing with an odd assortment of characters, including a brother and sister who breathlessly arrive at his door, seeking sanctuary from the police who broke up a beach party. The brother soon leaves, asking the screenwriter to keep an eye on his sister, Melika (Maryam Moqadam) until he can come back to get her, warning she tends to be suicidal.

Bemused, the screenwriter tries to get on with things, only to have thieves briefly break in.

But the thieves are only a momentary distraction; Melika aggressively wanders the house, questioning the screenwriter in a manner alternating between sullen and authoritative. The last straw seems to be coming when she impulsively rips away the curtains covering almost every window in the villa.

Here the narrative shifts into two parallel tracks. Enter Panahi himself, apparently to hold some kind of production meeting. Panahi seems barely aware of the screenwriter and completely unaware of the girl or the dog.

In small scenes, reminiscent of “The Others” in which a Civil War wife waits for her husband in a large house, plagued by vague spirits, only to discover that it is she and her children who are dead, there is a disquieting feeling that some people in this film aren’t really there.

In fact, when the girl’s sister comes to get her, it is Panahi who opens the door, claiming to be alone in the house.

Eventually the narrative fragments even further. Panahi seems to be set on drowning himself in the Caspian Sea, only to have the action flip with Panahi walking out of the sea and back into the storyline.

“Closed Curtain” is an odd film. Unlike most of Panahi’s films, it may be difficult to follow the allegory that floats just below the surface like seaweed without some background in Iranian film and Panahi’s current situation

Nonetheless, it is a gorgeously shot film with noir-like deep shadows and elegant angles which keep the unease quietly simmering below the surface. Filtered melancholic light casts a slight pall over everything, even the sea, until the final moment when Panahi casts open the curtains to let in a slightly more hopeful vista.

The response to “Closed Curtain” has been interesting. While it has puzzled some critics, the film has won wide acclaim in festivals throughout Europe and the U.S.

The official word from Iran has been more low-key, bordering on the petulant.

The Iranian Student News Agency, a student-run, independent news agency with partial funding from the Iranian government, sent the following to the Berlin Festival, “Its officials should amend their behavior because in cultural and cinematic exchange, this is not correct, adding, "Everyone knows that a license is needed to make films in our country and send them abroad…”

In response to the film’s success, the Iranian authorities confiscated the passports of Partovi and Moqadam, preventing them from attending film screenings abroad.

Panahi himself remains under the ban.

“Closed Curtain” can be read on several levels, not a few of them suggest the film is a cautious cry for help.

It would be a shame if Panahi, one of Iran’s finest and most imaginative filmmakers, finally bends under the ban. But Panahi, who often seems like the man with a 1,001 cameras, may well be the phoenix of Iran’s film industry. He’s weathered official sanction before – there may be another cake arriving soon.

"Closed Curtain" is now playing at the Digital Gym on El Cajon Boulevard. It screens Thursday, July 24, at 7 pm. Please see their website for more information.

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