Active Ingredients: Artistic and political defiance; interior digital cinematography
Side Effects: Limited resonances from fictional/documentary divide
[Closed Curtain plays at the Boston MFA until August 24th.]
Closed Curtain is equal parts defiance and despair. Made by a persecuted filmmaker legally barred from making films, it’s the expression of a man banned from self-expression. Like many Iranian films since that country’s “new wave” in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Closed Curtain is full of contradictions, forcibly joining two opposing conditions to observe their strange alchemy. Yet unlike, say, Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, Jafar Panahi’s new film isn’t a celebration of the limitless possibilities created by these juxtapositions. Rather, Closed Curtain becomes a sober exploration of the very limited aesthetic possibilities open to a silenced artist who nonetheless feels a deep human need to speak.
The first half of the film follows a man and his dog settling into a writer’s retreat on the seaside. He carefully blocks all the windows with heavy black curtain and frequently checks for people watching him. As we later learn, the writer is a fugitive, a persecuted artist forced into hiding because dogs are considered unclean and illegal in Iran’s Muslim society. He is soon joined by another fugitive, a suicidal young woman whose nonetheless bold, defiant and stubbornly unafraid in the face of political adversity.
Halfway through the film, however, Panahi himself pulls the curtain inside. He’s the artist trapped inside his home; the man, the dog, and the girl are character he’s invented, facets of his interior life, or both. It’s an interesting, theatrical reveal—more Pirandello or Beckett than the cinematic metafictions made famous by Panahi’s peers—and one that invites us to recontextualize the narrative we’ve witnessed into the director’s own life. Once Panahi takes over, we see him deal with the sadness, boredom and helplessness of house arrest as his characters look on, powerless to influence him but anxious for him to continue to create.
Panahi explored similar ground in his 2012 feature This Is Not a Film—both works explore the artistic possibilities and limitations available within the confines of the director’s domestic space—though Closed Curtain feels much more stifled, somber and pessimistic. The characters he has half-created disappear before our eyes, and their absence shows how little of the world outside Panahi has to work against. Once a social realist, Panahi’s eye has been forced inward.
To an artist like Panahi, self-expression is like the air we breath, and Closed Curtain finds himself gasping just above the water. And yet Jafari Panahi lives. He continues to create, despite great political odds, and he makes this creative process the subject of his films. And as the contemplative bookends of Closed Curtain show, Panahi will not let his situation silence him. He remains defiant despite his despair.