To fully appreciate the lumbering curiosity that is “Closed Curtain,” you have to know the back story. The film was written and co-directed by Jafar Panahi, a celebrated Iranian filmmaker who was targeted by his government for making rebellious propaganda. He spent time in prison, and he’s forbidden to leave the country except under rare circumstances, nor is he supposed to make any movies for 20 years. But since that 2010 sentence, he has made two: the cheekily titled “This Is Not a Film” and this, a drama that may come across as inscrutable but is nevertheless a powerful form of defiance.
The film opens with an unnamed writer (Kambuzia Partovi, who also co-directed the movie) arriving at a seaside home with his dog. He’s jumpy and immediately begins closing the curtains in the house. It turns out he’s concerned because of an incident with his adorable furball. The government has banned bringing dogs out in public, and the writer was in violation but managed to escape prosecution. Then odd things begin happening to the writer, including a visit from a couple of strangers who materialize at his door, berate him and then abruptly disappear.
But weirder still is what happens when Panahi himself appears. The surreal, tense movie we’ve become invested in suddenly pivots into a completely different, still surreal movie. The characters are still occasionally in the frame, and they even speak to each other about the director, but Panahi doesn’t appear to see them. One of the characters reports back to the writer that the director saw her, and she sometimes tries to get his attention, but without his help, their story is stalled. They just sit on chairs waiting for Panahi to finish their narrative.
But he doesn’t. He makes tea and fixes a broken window; he visits with neighbors and eats lunch. The real-life Panahi is making a movie about a fictionalized Panahi purposefully not making a movie, even though inspiration is hovering around him all the time. At least, that’s one reading. It’s also possible that the writer is making all of this up. Maybe Panahi is meant to be a figment from some other story.
The filming is utilitarian and some of it was done on an iPhone, and because Panahi is under house arrest, we never leave the seaside home, which is the director’s actual house. As a not-so-gentle reminder of his situation, the movie begins and ends looking out at the ocean through windows that are lined with bars.
“Closed Curtain” is at times slow and constantly puzzling. It doesn’t carry the impact of some of Panahi’s more conventional films. It’s not his best movie, but the fact that he’s making a movie at all is remarkable. Panahi has said this isn’t necessarily the movie he wanted to make, but given his circumstances, it was one he needed to produce.
★ ★ ★
Unrated. At the West End Cinema. Contains troubling images. In Persian with subtitles.