Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi may have been banned by his authorities from directing films, yet here he is defying the odds yet again by delivering his second film in a row after the interdiction was slapped on him, following the multi-layered essay on his home imprisonment This Is Not a Film. Closed Curtain was again made in association with an "above ground" filmmaker and friend, Kambozia Partovi, but this is a much more claustrophobic, darker object than This Is Not a Film, more overtly cryptic while moving away from its predecessor's documentary elements. For better or worse, the new film is more openly staged, as the opening scene suggests: a man (Mr. Partovi) arrives at a seaside villa and, before everything else, makes sure every single window in the house is covered, setting the scene as both a stage (or maybe a rehearsal room) and a prison, or maybe a stage within a prison.

     Yet, though Closed Curtain asks again the question of what can a filmmaker do when he cannot make films and retains the defiance of This Is Not a Film while doing so, it runs with it in a different and less successful direction. It starts out as a fictional narrative, with the man arriving at the villa eventually revealing a dog he carried hidden in his luggage, to save him from an edict demanding all pets to be disposed of, and then harboring against his will another fugitive (Maryam Moghadam), though for different reasons. Halfway through this deliberately opaque thread, though, Mr. Panahi makes his appearance pulling down all the curtains of the villa, revealed as his seaside house and letting the sunshine in; slowly, Closed Curtain reveals itself as an essay on the nature of narrative, intricately layering its two levels of story-telling. In the parable about the fugitives, Mr. Partovi seems to be playing a writer who is laying out a script; the problems that he finds with the house he's hiding are, in the meantime, being sorted by Mr. Panahi with some workers, and being commented upon by Mr. Partovi and Ms. Moghadam, as if they were observers from another dimension; and Mr. Panahi, on his end, seems to be observing or thinking how to film the fugitives.

     Closed Curtain thus becomes something out of Samuel Beckett or Alain Robbe-Grillet, creating its own "world on a wire" (to quote Fassbinder) where you ask yourself exactly whom is dreaming what. Eventually, this asserts itself as a kind of feedback loop that starts over again at the end, suggesting this is much closer to the observational, cryptic tone of Mr. Panahi's earlier works (both as a writer for Abbas Kiarostami and on his own). But, in its open questioning of the borders between reality and fiction, art and life, Closed Curtain remains stronger as a theoretical, abstract construct than as a genuinely enthralling film. There was a spontaneity and a true sense of adventure lurking within This Is Not a Film that is sorely missing here; this is clearly a more thought-out production, closer to a more traditional film, but it's much less relatable than its predecessor. Where before we felt for Mr. Panahi's predicament but life went on in hope, here the sheer opaqueness of the metaphors suggest a quiet desperation, a claustrophobia indicating that the director might have taken refuge inside the darker corners of his mind and came back with a more intellectual but less focused experiment. While the sheer existence of Closed Curtain is great and welcome news, the end result is more interesting as a political statement or as an exercise in self-therapy than as an engaging film.

Cast: Kambozia Partovi, Maryam Moghadam, Jafar Panahi, Hadi Saeedi
Directors and writers: Mr. Panahi, Mr. Partovi
Cinematography: Mohammed Reza Jahanpanah  (colour)
Editor and producer: Mr. Panahi (Jafar Panahi Productions)
Iran, 2013, 106 minutes

Screened: Berlin Film Festival 2013 official competition advance press screening, Berlinale Palast (Berlin), February 12th 2013


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