The deteriorating state of the Middle East has long since eclipsed the injustice inflicted on Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who was sentenced in 2010 to six years imprisonment and a 20-year ban on making movies because of his “propaganda against the Islamic Republic” — i.e., brilliant, humane films such as “The Circle” (2000) and “Crimson Gold” (2003). Panahi responded by secretly making “This is Not a Film” (2011) in his apartment while under house arrest and smuggling it out of the country on a flash drive hidden in a cake.
Under the more moderate regime of President Hassan Rouhani, Panahi has so far avoided actual jail time and has made a second film on the sly. This one is set in his villa on the Caspian Sea and, like the first, it relates a reflexive allegory about the human condition in general and his own situation in particular. Unlike the first film, though, the Kafkaesque story itself proves more engaging while the narrative illusion is sustained than it does when Panahi’s imposed, solipsistic self-regard shatters it.
But what other kind of film can he make, with means limited to himself, his home, a camera, and friends who are brave enough to risk persecution by collaborating with him?
The latter includes his co-director Kambuzia Partovi, who also stars in the film as the Writer. He is first seen entering the villa, where he hastens to close the curtains. Then he pulls a small dog from a carry-on bag. When he turns on the TV news, one reason for his paranoia and secrecy is revealed: The Islamic regime has declared a jihad against dogs as unclean animals. Sickening images of slaughtered animals fill the screen.
The Writer turns off the TV, disables his cellphone, and begins his task, which is writing a screenplay describing the events that have happened so far in the film. But a surprise visit from strangers interrupts him. The Girl (Maryam Moqadam) and the Girl’s Brother (Hadi Saeedi) have somehow gotten into the house. The Brother explains that they have escaped from the morality police, who raided a party they were attending. He asks the Writer to keep an eye on his sister while he goes in search of someone who can give them a ride. “She has a thing about suicide,” he adds.
Just the kind of thing he wants to hear. Unable to write, he questions the Girl. Who are they? He demands. How did they get in? How did she know he had a dog? She replies by asking him what was the point of writing screenplays while isolated from all reality other than his need to write screenplays?
About this time you expect Panahi himself to make an appearance, and he doesn’t disappoint. The “closed curtain” opens to reveal a mirrored box. As in “This is Not a Film,” Panahi alludes to his previous movies. In particular, the opening and closing scenes of this film evoke those in “Crimson Gold.” They are long shots of the outside as seen through a security gate. In “Crimson Gold,” the view is of a chaotic street in Tehran. Here, it is the empty sea. This difference demonstrates what Panahi has been deprived of, and what the world has lost because of it.