by David D'Arcy, Artinfo
The Iranian director Jafar Panahi was back at the Berlinale this year, or at last his new film Closed Curtain was. Last year Panahi was a member of the jury, represented by an empty chair – a tribute, but this was the chair B.C., Before Clint, before Dirty Harry weaponized it as an insult prop at the Republican Convention.
Panahi is under house arrest in Iran for making propaganda against the Islamic regime. He is lucky that he is not in prison. His international reputation and the support of admirers outside Iran is largely responsible for keeping the regime from locking him up. He is still banned from making films for 20 years. We’ll see what happens to him now that Closed Curtain is being praised.
Panahi’s new film is set in an apartment facing what looks like the Caspian Sea. They call it a lake in the subtitles. A man is hiding there, with his loyal dog, who steals the show. The dog watches television sadly as images show the government that mistreats its people killing dogs in the street and piling up their bodies. The man shaves his head, perhaps in the hope that he won’t be recognized if the curtain is pulled back. He attends to his work, yet there’s a constant temptation to leave the house and walk into the waves of the beach across the road, ending it all. The threat of suicide can rightly be seen as something special in Iran, where bombers do it as a service to God, or pay people around the world to do it.
Panahi’s collaborator, co-director Kambuzia Partovi, said at a Berlinale press conference that the two men made the film because they wanted to work. Being inactive under that regime, besides acknowledging its power over you, demoralizes you to a dangerous point. Closed Curtain explores these anxieties in a fable. A young couple of outcasts comes in and out. The gentle dog is a charming witness and sounding board. I heard a critic call the film self-indulgent – a bit misguided, if you consider that an assertion of self against the Almighty’s domination of the Everyday is an act of courage, an act of survival.
Someone is sure to note triumphantly that the restrictions placed upon Panahi have required him to be rigorous in his storytelling, to make more with less. I hope he doesn’t have to read that condescending nonsense.
Also originating in Iran – in Iranian culture, more specifically – is Fifi Howls at Happiness – a documentary by Mitra Farahani about Bahman Mohassess, an artist who was at odds with multiple regimes in Iran, ever since the UK and the US toppled the Mossadegh regime that tried to nationalize the petroleum industry in 1954.
Farahani, who lives in Paris, tracked the artist down in Rome. In the film, produced by an Iranian-American in the San Francisco Bay Area, she won’t say how she achieved that. After convincing him to talk to her, he speaks of making some topical political pictures – which name their subjects rather than depict them in any discernible way. Fifi, the name in the title, is a silhouetted figure in red with a grotesquely thin neck and a rectangular face , a shape that seems influenced by Dubuffet and that crowd. The figure holds his arm upright against his chest – the defiance of the artist? This artist, who admits shredding most of his art in Tehran, would never sell or part with this one. It hangs behind him for most of the film.
Mohassess also worked for the Shah – created his likeness, that is. He made a sculpture of the Iranian monarch and his wife, which raised some questions when the Shah’s facial expression turned out not to be regal enough. It certainly wasn’t regal enough for the mullahs, or maybe too regal. Footage in the doc seems to show the work being dismantled.
As the chainsmoking Mohassess ranges far and wide about Iran, about his own homosexuality (he liked straight boys), and about destroying his own work, he punctuates obscene proclamations with poetry. Two artists arrive to commission a new painting from him. Rokni and Ramin Haerizadeh, painters from a later generation who have fled Tehran and relocated in Dubai, ask Mohassess to create a work of art for them. They are admirers, and clients. There’s demand among ex-patriate Iranians, and not much to buy.
It’s tempting to think of Sheherazade when you see the Mohassess, smoke curling upward from a cigarette in his hand, talking endlessly to the brothers about the work that he has yet to create. Is he procrastinating, waiting them out, refusing to acknowledge to this Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern that he may be past his powers? Is he anticipating that his powers may be too much for them? Farahani brings in a discussion of Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece to frame Mohassess’s position as he faces a younger generation and a world of art created under conditions of luxury.
How do you resolve this dilemma? Do you talk eloquently from your position as dean (albeit disappeared) of an artistic diaspora, or do you make a painting that relies only on your reputation. It takes you back to Closed Curtain, where the dilemma is represented by the curtain – the curtain is closed, to conceal you from the outside, but you are tempted to pull it back and plunge through the picture window, for all to see. It’s as final as a performance can get.
Mohassess falls ill. He dies, as the camera is rolling. Farahani is too respectful to show it. But even before her film, Mohassess has been brought back from what many assumed was oblivion. An exhibition next year at the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris will show Iranian art from the 1950’s through the 1970’s – another lost generation. Get ready for more conversations like those in Fifi Howls at Happiness.
David D’Arcy writes about film for Screen International, The National (Abu Dhabi), the San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. He is frequently heard talking about movies on BBC Radio.