Jafar Panahi's Closed Curtain showcases the difficulties of making art and being an artist in a troubled world.
"I don't want any trouble." So says the unnamed apparent protagonist of Closed Curtain (Pardé). Played by Kambuzia Partovi -- who co-directs the film with Jafar Panahi -- this fellow is doing his best to quell the chaos that's just walked into the house. But as soon as he makes this announcement to the intruders Melika (Maryam Moqadam) and Reza (Hadi Saeedi), you know that he's got just that, trouble.
He may even want it. After all, he's participating in a film being made by an artist whom the government of Iran has banned from filmmaking for 20 years. (And indeed, once Closed Curtain was completed and smuggled to the 2013 Berlinale, where it won the Silver Bear, both Partovi and Moqadam had their passports revoked.) Still, his declaration of reluctance sets in motion a series of events that resemble a plot, but more effectively showcase the difficulties of making art and being an artist in a troubled world.
The man's unbidden guests embody that world in several ways. They enter through his unlocked door, rushed and afraid and wet, they say, because they've been harassed by authorities who've caught them at a social gathering on the nearby beach (it being against the law for men and women to gather socially). "We were surrounded," Reza explains, "They confiscated everything we have." Telling the man that Melika is his sister (and also suicidal), Reza promises he'll return with a car to fetch her, then disappears into the night.
Another sort of night pervades the house. A screenwriter who's come to do some work at "a friend's home" (in fact, Panahi's vacation home), he's covered during the day and immediately undertaken a set of subterfuges, shaving his head and drawn curtains over the windows and also, the framed movie posters that adorn the walls (Western posters advertising Panahi's previous films). His secrecy has to do with his dog, named Boy, whom he's smuggled into the house in a duffel bag: the regime, a TV report informs you, has recently outlawed pet dogs as "unclean".
With all this on his mind -- work undone, Boy at risk, his own brand new baldness -- the screenwriter is perplexed by Melika's arrival, which occasions both metaphorical and narrative crises. Most often, she speaks these out loud, accusing him of lying ("Only scared people lie"), complaining about (and taking down) the curtains, and suggesting that what he does is, by definition, hopeless: "Do you think you can capture reality?" she asks, "Especially in here?"
When daylight breaks, these metaphors also break open, when Panahi himself materializes, observing the ruckus, making tea, and remaining unnoticed by the characters who may or may not be functions of a "captured" reality. Panahi's appearance is attended by a brilliant bit of business, as the writer reenacts his movements of the ostensible evening before, retracing steps and narrating as he goes, to discover just how he left that door open to trouble.
The repetition suggests the artifice of what you're seeing and also its authenticity, suggests that the people in the house (and the entire film is shot inside the house, even the minutes-long takes of the traffic and sea across the street) are reflections of the external restrictions imposed on Panahi and also allusions to an artist's inner turmoil.
The meta frame takes another turn when Panahi finds a cell phone Melika has left behind, and watches a recording she made of herself, making her way around the house and then out, as the hectic handheld footage settles, framing her in long shot as she walks into the sea. The girl's chaos -- difficult to read and resonant at the same time -- is set alongside Boy's, in the sense that he remains utterly, silently loyal to his writer. Boy is eager to engage him in any sort of activity involving a tennis ball. Sensing something, he's also superbly patient during both long pauses in action and a briefly jarring scene, when the screenwriter hides with his him in a closet, lights out, as they listen to unseen intruders ransacking the house just a few feet away.
When this express instance of trouble is done, the screenwriter and Boy disappear from the film for a time, as Panahi calls in a landlord who helps arrange for workers to replace a broken window. The men conduct their business, share tea, and talk around the break-in; on leaving, the landlord turns to the artist to sympathize with his circumstance, known to all and representative of many. "Last time you were here," the landlord says, "My son saw you go into the sea. Times are really tough, but they'll get better. You'll be able to make movies again."
And so he is. If this movie isn’t an ideal sort, if the limits and costs are visible at every turn, still, it is a movie, inspiring, provocative, and political. It 's just the trouble you want.