By Stephanie Zacharek
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Sometimes, if not often enough, movies demand to be watched as something more than just expensive daydreams — they come festooned with real-world urgency and relevance, and the context of their existence kicks the shit out of how entertained we may or may not be at any given moment. No contemporary filmmaker possesses the hyper-context belonging to Jafar Panahi, who has become justly world famous for not only being under house arrest in Iran until 2016 and banned from filmmaking for 20 years (for anti-government "propaganda") but also for continuing to make films anyway.
Closed Curtain opens with a five-minute-long view through the security grate of Panahi's beach house, as a cab pulls up down by the Caspian beach and slowly disgorges a writer (Kambuzia Partovi). Once inside, he releases the dog he had secreted in his duffel bag — and the reality dawns that he is in hiding, as much for himself as for his dog, whom he had saved from the Islamic Republic's newly ramped-up campaign against "unclean" pets. (Soon enough the dog — in one of movie history's deftest and most eloquent animal performances — is watching televised news footage of mass canine roundups and executions. We hardly need a better reason to dismiss the mullahs as blinkered fools.) The writer immediately closes the curtains and blacks out every window with cloth, and we have the acute sense that from here on in, everything concrete will be metaphoric, and vice versa.
Trapped with the protagonist in these rather lavish digs, we're perhaps less surprised than he is to be accosted by a 20-something brother and sister (Hadi Saeedi and Maryam Moghadam) invading the house after running, so they say, from the police.
The girl lingers, and is clearly a projection from the outset, possibly of the writer's own fears and worries (her supposed penchant for suicide attempts emerges later as Panahi's own), and more likely as a figure in the unmentioned screenplay he's trying to write. Eventually, Panahi appears as well, roughly alternating with his alter ego, and the film slips between the movie we're watching, its production (which might include the script that never gets finished), and multiple movies within the movie, coming off as imagined scenarios that can be swiped and reconceptualized.
And that's moviemaking, isn't it? Of course the real world doesn't stay out — in Closed Curtain an ominous break-in and ransacking necessitate the intrusion of neighbors and handymen, and they bring others, creating a kind of social meditation on how life can be lived in a violently absurdist culture. Art, on the other hand, may not survive.
Possibly the Iranian new wave's last meta-man, Panahi is in an ideal position to make the unique methodology of his filmmaking merge with its substance. But he's always been fascinated by how a film's bell-jar bubble can be punctured, leaving a viscous interface between real and cinematic. Throughout Closed Curtain there's the feeling that the film itself is unfinished — it is, in fact, unfinishable, because life does go on.
Peel the artichoke, beyond the visual doublings and textual enigmas — and the hypnotic cutaways to the dog named Boy, so baffled by life in Iran and so nakedly fascinated by his owner — and you may come to wonder, as I did, if the fictionalized "realness" of Panahi's movie, and how it expresses his life's dilemma, isn't just more simulacra and self-publicity, as authentic or inauthentic as a bedroom YouTube spat or activist Twitter chain. If so, so what? The reality of Closed Curtain is entirely off-screen, in the grip of Sharia fanaticism, and no less vital for that. (After the film splashed at the Berlin Film Festival last year, Partovi and Moghadam have both had their passports confiscated at home.) If that's not your idea of what movies can do, feel free to go stick your head up a giant robot's ass.
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