Closed Curtain” opens and closes with lengthy, mostly static shots of barred doors. That’s fitting for a filmmaker — Iranian director Jafar Panahi — living under house arrest and officially banned from his craft. Despite this sentence, “Closed Curtain,” co-directed by Kambozia Partovi, is the second “non-film” he’s made under these terms. It’s a lot stranger and more ambitious than his first, the largely documentary “This Is Not a Film.”
Panahi’s partner in dissidence, Mohammad Rasoulof, recently made “Manuscripts Don’t Burn,” which played MoMA last month. That is angry agitprop, the kind of film likely produced by someone planning to leave his country for good. (Indeed, Rasoulof wanted to emigrate to Germany last fall until his passport was seized by the Iranian government.) “Closed Curtain” doesn’t indict the Islamic regime directly; instead, it shows the psychological effects of living under its confinement.
When the Iranian government declares dogs “impure” and un-Islamic, banning pet owners from walking them in public, a screenwriter (Partovi) shuts himself up in his house with his dog Boy. He shaves his head and covers all the windows in his house with curtains. Working on a new script, he’s disturbed by a nameless young woman (Maryam Moghadam) and her brother (Hadi Saeedi). They appear to be on the run from the law, though their behavior is odd enough to make the writer doubt their story. While he’s reluctant, he agrees to let them stay with him. The writer argues with the woman, and her brother seemingly comes and goes at random. Then Panahi (playing himself) turns up, and a twist takes place.
The opening scene of “Closed Curtain” — a long shot of a barred door — goes on for so long, with so little happening, that it resembles avant-garde director James Benning’s experiments in duration. Through the door, one can see people walking outside, but they’re far too distant to make out any faces. Throughout, Panahi and Partovi play with extremes of light and darkness. In several scenes, two characters talk in lighting so dim that they may as well be offscreen.
The editing is extremely elliptical. In the space of a cut, minutes, if not hours, pass. Characters suddenly disappear and reappear with no explanation. Partovi’s character tries to create a private space for himself and his dog; “Closed Curtain” suggests that in contemporary Iran, that’s impossible.
The first half of “Closed Curtain,” which centers around Partovi and the young woman who barges into his house, is tightly focused. It’s dark, both visually and thematically. After that point, it introduces a greater number of characters into the narrative and lets some light into the frame. The reality of these characters is sometimes in doubt. Of all the films Panahi has made, this is the one closest to classic European modernism — no doubt the reason why it’s earned him so many Pirandello comparisons. “Closed Curtain” is complex, to the point where it’s not afraid to be confusing.
“This Is Not a Film” wore its tiny budget on its sleeve like a badge of honor; one scene was even shot on an iPhone. As it happens, several scenes in “Closed Curtain” are also shot on cell phones, but it’s far from “This Is Not a Film 2.” It also feels much less like a Panahi film, although its two-part structure evokes his second film, “The Mirror.” The presence of a co-director was barely felt in “This Is Not a Film,” but here, Partovi actually makes more of an impression — at least as an actor — than Panahi, who doesn’t appear on-screen until the film’s final half. The ending of “Closed Curtain” has a disappointing lack of focus.
Still, the initial mood of the film is indelible. “Closed Curtain” suggests a lot about how bleak life in Iran can get —with images of slaughtered dogs on a TV report as Boy lies placidly on the couch — while avoiding overt politics.
CLOSED CURTAIN | Directed by Jafar Panahi and Kambozia Partovi | In Farsi with English subtitles | Variance Films | Opens Jul. 9 | Film Forum, 209 W. Houston St. | filmforum.org
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