TIFF Review: 'Closed Curtain'

This review was originally published on February 12, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Berlin Film Festival.

What do you do if you’re Jafar Panahi, an extraordinarily gifted filmmaker who’s not only serving a prison sentence – one that essentially keeps him under house arrest – but who has also been banned from making films in his home country of Iran for the next 18 years? The answer, maybe, is that you make a picture like “Closed Curtain". And for both you and the audience, it isn’t going to be enough.

“Closed Curtain,” which premiered in competition at the Berlin Film Festival, is actually even less of a film than Panahi’s 2011 quasi-documentary about his life under house arrest, “This Is Not a Film.” That picture was a small yet potent a message in a bottle, floating forth from a mournful but also weirdly hopeful land of exile (the movie had to be smuggled out of Iran on a flash drive hidden inside of a cake in order to make its debut at Canes. It’s not yet clear how “Closed Curtain” made it to Berlin.)

“Closed Curtain” is, or at least appears to be, an attempt to make a narrative film about constrained creativity – the director’s own – using characters who may or may not be real to tell a story about fear, persecution, despair and possibly redemption. In other words, it’s not really clear what Panahi is trying to express with “Closed Curtain,” and to give the picture a pass because it was the best he could do under the circumstances would be more painful than trying to illuminate its faults. “Closed Curtain” – which Panahi made with the help of Iranian filmmaker Kambozia Partovi, cowriter of “The Circle” - opens with an extremely long take, a shot of a landscape that stretches to include both the sea and a road. But a closed gate separates the viewer and the landscape. Are we inside a prison or a fortress? That’s just the first of many questions that Panahi sort of asks and then only sort of answers.

That gate, we learn, stretches across the front of a house. A man (Partovi, perhaps playing some version of himself) opens the gate and enters – he’s brought a dog with him, a spirited black-and-tan scrapper with an expressive plume for a tail, whom he’s transported in a duffel bag. The man must keep the pup a secret, as dogs are CNG (canine non grata) under Islamic law. In fact, everything the man does is circumscribed by fear and caution. Right after he enters the house, he places dark, heavy curtains over the large windows. He has a litter box for the dog – the two don’t dare go outside – and late in the evening, after he has briefly stepped out to empty the box, he fails (it seems) to close the door securely behind him.

A young man and a young woman enter. The woman (Maryam Moghadam) is wet and shivering; the young man (Hadi Saeedi) virtually demands that the older man look after her. The two are trying to elude capture, by whom it’s not entirely clear. “We were followed, but we lost them,” the young man says simply. The older man, clearly upset that these intruders have discovered his whereabouts, orders them to leave, but they refuse. The young man then leaves the woman in the older man’s care, with a warning: “She has a knack for suicide.”

What follows is a meandering cat-and-mouse game between the young woman and the older man, the former grilling the latter rather passive-aggressively about his dog, his motives and his very presence. Later, mysteriously and suddenly, Panahi himself walks into the frame, once again a character in his own construct. Eventually, a neighbor and two repairmen show up, by which point all bets are off as to what the hell is going on.

“Closed Curtain” is more a sketched-out essay than a fully fleshed-out film, an unshaped meditation on what happens to creativity when you try to shut it in a box. The answer, or as close as Panahi can get to it, isn’t particularly encouraging. There are plenty of ways to read the film metaphorically: The younger man may represent Panahi’s fear and caution; the young woman might represent the part of him that’s defiant, questioning and without fear, the part that’s able to get films smuggled out of his country inside of cakes.

All of these characters move around, and speak, stiffly, like fictional creations who have grown rusty and don’t quite know what to do with themselves. “Closed Curtain” is initially intriguing but wears itself down to a slow grind by the end – the film is too much inside Panahi’s head and not enough in ours.

And still, amid its tangle of problems, the picture is surprisingly moving, not least for the way it suggests Panahi’s deep and dangerous despair. In one sequence, he – or someone – films himself walking out to sea, disappearing into it. The film is then played backward, a reassurance that we haven’t lost him yet – but the threat is always there.

In the end, “Closed Curtain” is affecting without being effective. It’s not the movie that Panahi should be making at this point in his life, though it’s apparently the only one he can make. Perhaps that’s what’s so gravely disappointing about it. The dog in “Closed Curtain” doesn’t appear to be a metaphor at all; he’s allowed, thankfully, to just be a dog, and he’s the movie’s strongest character. Patient and loyal, he waits for the day Panahi can get back to making films that really are films.

SCORE: 6.7 / 10