Oct. 05--BEIRUT -- "All you need for a movie," Jean-Luc Godard famously noted, "is a gun and a girl." Another wholesome-looking filmmaking sensibility -- one pawed by Disney and Harlan Ellison alike -- pivots on a boy and his dog. The only gun in Jafar Panahi's "Parde" (Closed Curtain) is implied and off-frame, though there is a girl. There is a fairly clever dog in the cast, too. Standing in for the "boy," who ought to play opposite dog and girl alike, is a middle-aged screenwriter. He's played by Kambozia Partovi, who co-directs and takes turns with Panahi before the camera.
"Closed Curtain" assembles these simple narrative elements to engineer an act of creation and defiance.
This is the second feature-length work to emerge from Panahi since he was arrested in 2010 for making propaganda against the Iranian regime, then banned from making films for 20 years. The film had its world premiere at the Berlinale earlier this year, where it took the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay.
His first post-detention work, "This is Not a Film," was shot with Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, a documentarian interested in the nuts and bolts of filmmaking. That work contemplated the urge to make movies -- even while maneuvering judicial restrictions that make it practically impossible -- and has been read as a challenge to the very definition of film.
"Closed Curtain" is not a documentary but, like "This is Not a Film" (which was located at Panahi's Tehran flat), it was shot within a confined space -- the filmmaker's secluded beach house. Both also worry over the possibility of a cinema of confinement.
The film commences from the perspective of the house itself, the camera being situated inside of the metal gate that bars the front door, a less than subtle reminder of the writer-director's present circumstances.
From this remove, the lens looks on as a taxi pulls up outside and deposits a lone passenger. The unnamed man (Partovi) hurriedly deposits his luggage on the floor and, opening one of the bags, releases the dog he's smuggled into the house.
His next order of business is to close all the house's curtains, reinforcing the drapes at the broad salon window with a rectangle of black cloth. When he's done, this blackout curtain looks not unlike a blackened cinema screen.
While Partovi reinforces his positions -- building a litter box, shaving his head, etc. -- the reason for all this secretive behavior becomes clear. The state has decreed that dogs have been banned because they are considered unclean in Islam. Accompanying the television report is newsreel-style footage of canines being rounded up, some with their throats cut.
The screenwriter's dog gazes upon these images with limp despondency. This is in stark contrast to the canine's otherwise comic role in the film -- sitting alertly alongside the protagonist as he goes about his chores, toting a tennis ball with him everywhere he goes in hopes of coaxing some fun out of the old man.
Just as Partovi puts the finishing touches on this Beckett-like habitat, his labor is compromised when a young man and woman burst through the front door.
He demands to know who they are and what they think they're doing. They offer unsatisfying half-explanations about fleeing the police. He demands that they leave. Their attitudes suggest that the screenwriter has no authority to tell them to do anything.
The young couple's loud presence not only contravenes the quiet, quasi-comic arc the story has followed to that point, it marks a complete narrative rupture in the film.
Before he departs the action to find help, the young man warns that his companion Melika (Maryam Moghadam) is emotionally fragile and may have tried to drown herself.
Melika soon finds the screenwriter's hidden dog and immediately guesses their backstory. Loud and reckless as he is circumspect, the two humans are bound to quarrel. She gathers her things to leave but soon returns to rip down the blackout curtains, and with them the fabrics covering Panahi's film posters.
Melika's behavior provokes Panahi himself to enter the frame to clear up some of the mess she's made, though he leaves Partovi to finish the work.
"You write it and he shoots it," Melika complains to Partovi afterward. "You think you can represent reality from inside here?"
This is the pivotal question of the film, one filmmaker's address in the final movement.
Like his compatriot Mohammad Rasoulof, who was arrested in the same 2010 security sweep and has faced similar censure, Jafar Panahi has had to modify his filmmaking practice to accommodate his changed realities.
Before he was banned, Panahi's work was recognized for its studied neorealism -- deploying nonprofessional actors to recount stories of average Iranians in difficult circumstances.
In "The White Balloon" (1995), an impoverished mother gives her daughter some money to buy a goldfish, and the little girl must run a gauntlet of Tehran hustlers to reach her object.
"Crimson Gold" (2003) follows a pair of marginalized men whose anger at the disparities between Tehran's rich and poor drives them to crime.
"Offside" (2006) joins the adventures of a disparate group of female football fans who dress as boys so they can watch their team play live.
Marked by a more poetic and formally challenging narrative, "Closed Curtain" represents a major stylistic departure from these "social issue" films. It isn't the first work whose characters have shrugged off the mastery of their creators -- Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author" was first staged in 1921.
Yet there is a rawness as well, which may reflect a tension between the formal experimentation in this fiction film and the uncharacteristically personal subject matter that it is meant to counterpoint.
In a recent interview with this paper, Rasoulof expressed tentative enthusiasm about the current thaw in Tehran's relations with its artists. Once these filmmakers are able to resume their normal lives, it will be intriguing to see whether these years of censure leave a lasting mark on their oeuvres.
"Closed Curtain" is scheduled to screen at the Beirut International Film Festival Saturday 8 p.m. at Abraj Cinemas,
(c)2013 The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
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