It’s funny how the First Amendment gives U.S. citizens the right to be jerks. They can protest homosexuality at soldiers’ funerals, harass women at abortion clinics and publicly be racists. Something fundamental is lost in the cloud of such sensational wrong-headedness. The right of expression, no matter how you feel about something, is a human right recognized by the founders of the United States. It’s an important cornerstone because no matter what the government does in this country, we are allowed to call it out for the sake of our humanity. Theoretically, things should grow from there, in the best interest of society.
With sensational extremists wielding the First Amendment, the common U.S. citizen might sometimes forget the power this right gives everyone on a protective level. From the First Amendment comes the right to not only say what you want but to start conversations that can change things for the better of our collective lives, and the government is not allowed to get in the way. That cannot happen in many countries outside the U.S. One of those counties is Iran.
As noted in my 2012 review for This Is Not A Film (Film Review: ‘This Is Not a Film’ highlights Iranian filmmaker’s talents while under house arrest), Filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested and later banned from making films in Iran for 20 years. His crime? He and another director were busted in 2009 trying to document the Green Movement’s attempt to overthrow the country’s authoritarian regime through organized protests. Panahi was sentenced to six years of jail time, placed on house arrest and, what he considers worst of all, denied the right to make movies for 20 years. This is the guy who was part of a group of Iranian filmmakers who brought attention to his country through powerful films like White Balloon (1995). Now he resides in a state of legal limbo, the threat of jail constantly looming over him. He treads lightly during rare interviews and with the two films he has made since his arrest. Therefore, it’s important to bring an open mind to his work, and be prepared to read between the lines for the rewards of obscured narrative.
Just as with his previous film, Closed Curtain (Pardé) needs to be approached as another abstract tribute to cinema without it even being a movie that features the narrative coherence most moviegoers are accustomed to. The film opens with a lengthy shot through a panoramic window obstructed by a black accordion security gate. This is the director’s villa in Iran. As he says in this recent interview with The Daily Beast, “They freed me from a small jail … only to throw me into a larger prison when they banned me from working.” The metaphor is not lost in the image. Through the latticework, we can see the Caspian Sea below a bright, clear blue sky. A tiny, distant taxi rolls to a stop, and two small figures get out. The trunk is opened, bags are carried, and eventually one figure walks up to the house. This unfolds over five minutes, in one lengthy unbroken shot. Don’t call this filmmaking.
Once inside, the older man with bushy, gray hair (this is Panahi’s longtime collaborator screen-writer and the film’s co-director Kambuzia Partovi), anxiously puts down his bags and closes the curtain. Then, in the obscurity, hidden from the outside world, comes the film’s first of many surprises: He pulls a dog out of one of his bags. The dog, named Boy, appears to be a mix between a Papillon and a collie and has a standout personality thanks to its natural grin and a rather surreal scene involving a TV remote. After the writer blacks out all the windows in the house by nailing up black, heavy curtains (a metaphor not only for the filmmaker’s ban but also Iranian culture) he settles in to work. But then someone turns on a TV. The writer rushes to the living room and finds Boy with his paw on the remote. On the television: a news report featuring truckloads of dead dogs, including a close-up of one bleeding from its mouth, gasping for air. The news reader’s voice over reveals that canines have been banned under a new Islamic law. The writer takes out the remote’s batteries and scowls at the dog.
With this disturbing but profound scene, Boy rises above the melodramatic ploy most threatened animals become in movies. He stands as a representation for something bigger. The dog is now elevated to the status of martyr. That he’s rather cute helps, but the stakes feel bigger. The liberty of the writer and his dog becomes a matter of life and death. Their solitude is not only enhanced with the layers of curtains that seal them in the large villa but also their silence. Boy hardly barks and the writer speaks hardly a word. The only soundtrack is the writer’s shuffling walk, the click of light switches and the rustle of wrappers on non-perishable food items. Just as with his last film, the film features no score. That would be too cinematic. The images are, however, beautiful. Boy, with his fluffy black and brown coat of fur, blends into the home’s brown and red color palette of wood and brick. The green of Boy’s fuzzy tennis ball, a toy that only gets minimal use indoors, stands out in contrast to this subtle color scheme.
Before a mundane solitude is allowed to settle in, there’s a lengthy scene documenting the writer’s struggle to sneak out Boy’s litter box. When it seems his mission is accomplished, he turns around to find a young man (Hadi Saeedi) and woman (Maryam Moqadam), dressed in black standing in his foyer. They appear almost like apparitions. “How did you get in here?” asks the writer. “The door was open,” responds the young man. It turns out they too wish to hide, as the authorities are in pursuit after busting up a party, just one more of the many things people are not allowed to do in Iran.
Tension looms over Closed Curtain, but it doesn’t come from anxious cutting or heightened stylistic flourishes like music or camera angles. We never see this intruding couple’s pursuers, but we can hear them outside. Eventually, the authorities are thrown off by the house’s blacked out windows and go away. When the man leaves the woman with the writer, he warns him, “and be careful. She has a knack for suicide.” It’s a surreal portent in contrast to this woman’s smile. She later identifies herself as Melika, the sister of the young man who has left her at the house, and she will come to haunt the film’s narrative in an almost spectral sense.
It all unfolds almost in a stream of consciousness, and it is by crafty design because, eventually we learn, once again— and I will not spoil the series of surprises that follow— this is not a film. Instead, it is a glimpse into the creative consciousness of a director whose irrepressible imagination is being stifled. That’s a key notion to “getting” Closed Curtain. It’s an essay on Panahi’s desire to make a film he cannot finish. It is process trying to burst through the frame for thematic context that can only gel with what the viewer brings to it. You need not be Iranian to do this, just be sympathetic to the appreciation of artistic expression via cinema.
Closed Curtain may be filled with metaphors, but it’s also filled with Panahi’s heart for his craft and love for his neighbors and peers in a place where he has been denied an important human right: to be the creative person he cannot but help to be. Call it surreal, abstract or obtuse. The images that will continue to unfold as the film carries on to a startling, layered finale are also soulful, expressive and rambunctious. Closed Curtain is again another test of the limits of filmmaking and a subversion of them to offer something grander and more important: the human right to express oneself.
Closed Curtain runs 106 minutes, is in Farsi with English subtitles and is not rated (though it has a brief scene featuring some disturbing images involving dead dogs on a TV screen). It opens in South Florida this Friday, Aug. 8, at the Miami Beach Cinematheque, which provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review. If you live outside of our area, check the film’s website for screening dates in your neighborhood here (that’s a hot link).