The critics have been kind to Jafar Panahi in recent years, and understandably so. When an artist is being explicitly oppressed by his or her government yet continue to make art, it is surely something worth praising. There may be an element of truth to this, but Closed Curtain which first appeared at the Berlin Film Festival in 2013, seems to be praised mostly for the fact that it exists at all. That’s of little interest to the average moviegoer, for whom the important question is “is this film any good?”.
Panahi has been banned by the Iranian judiciary from making films and from leaving Iran since 2010 and Closed Curtain is the second film he’s made since the imposition of this ban. His previous movie This is Not a Film was set inside Panahi’s apartment in Tehran and was a strange and fascinating document of the frustration of being unable to make films. The point of This is Not a Film was to give Panahi the chance to read the screenplay for a film he wanted to make, but it spun off in all sorts of directions and was a fascinating work by any measure.
With Closed Curtain, Panahi has gone all Godard. In other words, he’s making a film especially for the critics and art house enthusiasts, those who love the idea of cinema as an auteur’s medium, rather than a form of entertainment. The film is about a writer and his dog who hide out in a house near the sea as the government is killing pet dogs. But it turns into some strange meta-narrative about the frustration and depression that Panahi feels in his situation. The director himself steps in front of the camera and doesn’t leave until the end, and the film is largely incoherent in whatever it’s trying to say.
Closed Curtain is another indicator of the large shift Iranian cinema has taken away from the simple childlike tales that first brought the nation’s films to international audiences. Besides Closed Curtain’s distinctly European arthouse ethos, films such as Mohammad Rasoulof’s explicit critique of the Iranian judiciary in Manuscripts Don’t Burn, Asghar Farhadi’s very complex narratives in films like A Separation and Abbas Kiarostami’s experiments in France and Japan, Iranian cinema is changing fast.
If Closed Curtain has one real problem, it’s that it suffers from a lack of ideas. Its disjointed narrative feels like the work of someone who’s been told too many times that he’s great, and now is just making films without worrying about making a good one. With the US’s nuclear deal with Iran set to pass in the coming months, and the increasingly liberal rule of Hassan Rouhani in the country, it would appear that the worst years of Iran’s seclusion are over. As a result the films criticising the regime will become increasingly redundant. It would be a shame for the nation to lose the great humanism that made its cinema world renowned as soon as its rulers became an increasingly impotent target.