Many movies at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival, which closed October 10, were epic in scope, but the very best film, “Closed Curtain,” tapered into smaller and smaller space until filmgoers were locked inside the mind of a single individual—the director, Jafar Panahi.
After releasing five allegories critical of his home country of Iran, Panahi was famously convicted in 2010 of creating “propaganda against the Islamic Republic.” His sentence included a 20-year ban on filmmaking. His response was to record an essay documentary about his house arrest and legal appeal, and smuggle it out of Iran on a thumb drive inside a cake. With its smack-talk title, “This Is Not a Film” stands as one of the most daring, brilliant home movies in the history of cinema.
That background is necessary to comprehend the majestic achievement of “Closed Curtain,” which plays as a fictional variation on the themes of “This Is Not a Film,” with perhaps even richer rewards. What begins as a made-in-secret, miniature allegory of Iranian repression—three people hide from authorities in a remote beach home on the Caspian Sea, using black drapes to avoid detection—eventually splinters into a Lynchian, psychological flight of the imagination starring Panahi as himself.
At first, it appears that we are watching the story of a screenwriter (played by co-director Kambuzia Partovi), and two visitors, a young man and woman, who disrupt his efforts to toil in peace. Realism, though, quickly surrenders to mystery and abstraction, until, in a mirror trick that even Orson Welles might have envied, Panahi himself enters the frame.
That twist, so startling and magical, was, for me, the most galvanizing moment of the festival. Yes, it clarifies that the other characters are hallucinations that represent different aspects of Panahi’s consciousness, but it also re-casts the entire movie as an X-ray into the dense, cracked soul of a wrongfully persecuted artist.
The mirror trick, of course, clues us into how “Closed Curtain” is a rigorous work of metaphors and self-reflection.
Dreamlike and luxurious, the beach house transmogrifies into a warehouse for symbols of subjugation. Both an iron gate and a banister suggest prison bars, and when a dog is smuggled inside a zipped duffel bag, it’s hard not to think of thumb drives. (This is reinforced when the television reports how dogs, considered “impure” and banned in public, are often left to bleed in the street, much like how pariahs and their art are carved up by rigid law.) Later, a shattered window stands in for Panahi’s psyche, vandalized by government officials.
“Isn’t my life enough hell already?” says the screenwriter, the part of Panahi that is perhaps too timid, too chastened to create in the wake of criminal conviction. Tearing down the black curtains that cover posters of the filmmaker’s greatest works (“The White Balloon,” “The Mirror,” “The Circle”), the young woman, the part of Panahi that wants to punch back, retorts, “You think you can capture reality in this house?” At one point, a warm friend tells the director there’s more to life than work. “Yes, but those things are foreign to me,” answers Panahi, confessing that the ban has robbed him of something more profound than just his livelihood.
It’s no surprise that Panahi, one of the world’s greatest film artists, has turned to making outlaw movies to exorcise his deepest pain. Still, there’s something unsettling about how he has concocted such a loopy, fractured version of his own demons.
The final scene hints that Panahi has found a way to come to terms with the ban and to re-commit to his artistic impulses, but what lingers about “Closed Curtain” is something less certain: This movie goes to dark places, and, in the way the characters assume multiple, seemingly paradoxical sides of Panahi’s mental health—the young woman, for example, is suicidal—it becomes a terrifying portrait of a man freighted with an oversized burden. Audiences will be forgiven if they leave “Closed Curtain” worried about the artist anointed by the international community to embody the good fight against tyranny.