Screens at CIFF: 10/20 & 10/22
World premiere: 12 February, 2013, Berlin International Film Festival

Firstly, Jafar Panahi isn't supposed to be making films at all. This is something that everybody knows who cares about Iranian film at all, of course, and it doesn't need repeating, but I think it's important to keep in mind that for the director to release anything requires a degree of secrecy and compromise and political daring that would daunt any artist. The same rules don't apply to other directors who can, for example, be seen outside in broad daylight with a camera, and not be subject to immediate legal reprisals. So while Closed Curtain, co-directed by Panahi and the long-dormant Kambuzia Partovi (whose last film was Border Cafe in 2005) might have its share of problems and then some, we're still talking about a movie that had to be conceived and executed to take advantage of an insuperably difficult life situation. For any film at all to have come out of those circumstances is impressive; for it to be a work of such complicated ambition as this is absolutely miraculous.

Still, we should also not do Panahi the disservice of acting like he's untouchable as a result, his movies beyond criticism - and Closed Curtain certainly has things worth criticising, though not nearly as many things as it has worth praising. That the film is a thematic re-tread of the director's last project, This Is Not a Film, is slightly vexing but really quite impossible to consider an unexpected shock, given the limitations of the life he's living right now, and while "the frustrations of a storyteller who can't tell stories" is a much less probing and socially-minded area to mine than Panahi's politically outspoken films from earlier in the career, he's still exploring this topic with the same depth and insight.

Closed Curtain begins by telling a story of a writer (Partovi) with dog named Boy - giving one of the most engaging animal performances I have ever seen, by the way, so giant kudos to Panahi, Partovi, or whatever trainer was responsible for it - who sneaks into an empty house on a beach, immediately closing all the curtains to make sure that nobody can see him, and shaving his head. Here he plans to finish his latest work, but he's interrupted by a young woman (Maryam Moqadam) and her brother (Hadi Saeedi), hiding from the police after a party gone wrong. The brother leaves, and the sister stays behind, driving the writer into a fit of paranoia with her actions, which include pulling down the thick, light-blocking curtains, and not acting nearly enough like she's not a government spy.

This is all very overtly symbolic and cryptic, but it's an interesting attempt to dramatise the tension felt by the isolated victim of repressive politics: the desire to be able to curl up and hide warring with the desire to stand up and scream about how unjust this is and thus be open to further abuse. The directors, and cinematographer Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah do a fantastic job of making the house (Panahi's own, the only place he could safely assemble a crew) into an Expressionist playground of acute angles, blind corners, and rooms that do not flow into each other with any obvious geography, perfectly capturing a sense of displaced paranoia that suits the film tremendously well.

Then the movie enters its second phase, and things get unbelievably weird. It's hard to attack the film for what happens next, because it is certainly not wanting for ambition or complexity, but it's also strangely out-of-balance, and I haven't decided yet if I think that it "works" on any level. But let's cut to the chase, and tread lightly around SPOILERS: Panahi himself enters the house, and we find that the characters we've spend so much time with are in fact the subjects of a script he hasn't been able to complete. Which doesn't mean that their story is done, for the young woman in particular is still hanging around, apparently developing a life of her own quite separate from her creator's awareness of what's going on.

One of the words that has been thrown at Panahi's two post-arrest films by some intelligent critics has been "indulgent", and while I think that's a profoundly unfair way to categorise This Is Not a Film, it comes a lot closer to the mark with Closed Curtain, a movie started during a period of intense depression for the filmmaker and produced at least in part as therapy. It plays that way, certainly: Panahi is pissed and frustrated and feeling artistically plugged-up, and his onscreen self (clearly scripted and "artificial" to a greater degree than the onscreen Panahi-character in This Is Not a Film) gives open voice to those feelings. A lot of people have also used the word "Pirandello" in this context, which isn't completely apt, though it does suggest the degree to which Closed Curtain feels like a game more than a statement, and this has not ever been true of the director's work; it's not a mode that fits his aesthetic terribly well, either, and Closed Curtain, befitting its title, feels a bit too hermetically sealed for its own. Good. The barred gate that dominates the opening and closing shots are perhaps meant to suggest being prevented from accessing the outside world, but they also imply being unable to engage with it, and that limits this film to a degree that it did not limit his last film (which came from a place of anger more than depression and has more life because of it).

That's a lot of harshness directed at a film that is completely, hypnotically fascinating, and if I am judgmental of Closed Curtain, it is only because I hold Panahi to such a high standard. It is, in and of itself, still quite a great piece of cinema, complicating its layers of meaning and asking questions about how cinema tells stories about real life in ways far too intellectual for most filmmakers to dare. How successful it is at carrying all its ideas off is something I can't quite say; my sense is that the film is a messy wreck, but in a way far more valuable than a thousand "better" films will ever know.