From the late 1990s to the early years of the 21st century, some of the best cinema came out of Iran. Populated with directors like Asghar Farhadi, Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Jafar Panahi, Iran’s postmodern renaissance showed that nothing was safe from the probing gaze of the camera lens. Sadly, this era came to an abrupt end in 2009 when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began his second term as president of Iran.

Challenging cinema was out, and these directors found themselves persona non grata. Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami, and Farhadi left for other, more understanding countries, but Panahi, possibly the best of the bunch, was left behind. He couldn’t even leave his own home.

In 2010, after multiple conflicts and arrests for civil disobedience, Panahi was sentenced to six years of house arrest and a 20-year ban on filmmaking. Panahi, never one to play by the rules, continued practicing his craft, even though his movies would never play in his native land, and could land him a much stricter punishment if he were caught.

2011’s This Is Not a Film—a documentary of sorts—was shot in Panahi’s Tehran apartment with a digital camera and iPhone and smuggled out of the country via a pen drive hidden in a cake. The movie shows a man artistically crippled but ends with a glimmer of hope, a twinkle in Panahi’s eye, and a refusal to go quietly into that night. His 2013 follow-up, Closed Curtain, is that very twinkle.

Trying to describe the plot of Closed Curtain is a sticky endeavor, but at its core, it is an autobiographical construct of Panahi post-ban. It begins with a mostly wordless shot of a screenwriter (Kambuzia Partovi, who also receives a co-director credit) smuggling his canine companion into a deserted seaside home (Panahi’s vacation home on the Caspian shore). The Iranian government has declared dogs impure and forbidden citizens to walk them in public, so the writer shuts himself and the dog inside the house.

That night, there is a knock at the door. A woman (Maryam Moqadam) and her brother (Hadi Saeedi) appear out of the darkness, and the brother leaves the girl with the writer. Clearly, they are both being pursued by something, but the brother reveals nothing, offers no answers to the writer’s questions, and gives no hint as to who he or she is.

There is where the logic of Closed Curtain ends, and the mirrors of Panahi begin. Panahi never allows his viewers sure footing as he introduces more characters and forces others to disappear completely, only to show up a few scenes later without explanation. Panahi himself shows up in a sizeable role, and the house continues to transform, bouncing back and forth between impenetrable darkness to blinding hot light.

In This is Not a Film, Panahi questions the nature of cinema, his role in cinema, and the value of that role once cinema has been robbed from him. In Closed Curtain, Panahi finds the answer he has been looking for all along. Cinema is his role. For Panahi, there is the camera, and there is nothing else.

As one character tells him, “There is more to life than work. There are other things too.”

“Yes…” Panahi replies, “But those things are foreign to me.”

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Closed Curtain (2013)
Directed by Jafar Panahi, Kambuzia Partovi
Written by Jafar Panahi
Produced by Jafar Panahi, Yousef Panahi
Starring: Kambuzia Partovi, Maryam Moghadam, Jafar Panahi, Hadi Saeedi, Azadeh Torabi, Abolghasem Sobhani
Variance Films, Not rated, Running time 106 minutes, Premiered Feb. 12, 2013.

A version of the above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 11, “Fight the power.”