Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami, 1990)

Drama is low, and yet emotion is quite high. How is that possible? It’s all in the name. Close-Up is such an intimate look at what motivated Hossain Sabzien (playing himself) to impersonate the famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. As the title says, the film gets very close, and we get to know this man not as a criminal, but as an artist in his own right, or at least someone deeply motivated by the arts, someone who seeks to understand them. He’s not unlike a good critic, interrogating an art form to find something meaningful, and he’s not unlike the movie itself, broadcasting the power of the arts in moving, discreet ways if you are willing to pay attention. And that is why Close-Up is so emotional. It shows us enough of Sabzien to convey his feeling, and we learn that someone who is easy to dismiss as uneducated is just as intelligent as the most thoughtful and experienced movie-goer, and that realization becomes a metaphor for film itself.

Based solely on its look at film theory, Close-Up would be a good movie. That Abbas Kiarostami, who edited, directed, and wrote Close-Up wanted it to be both ontological discourse and character study is what makes it a great one. In the process he forces us to question whether we expect truth or lies from the cinema, and he blends them together so perfectly here (some footage is documentary, some of it obviously cannot be) that we think the answer may be partly in our expectations of the film (and the art form) itself. Close-Up, of course, is neither truth nor lie. It’s a film that could be a pretentious gimmick in reckless hands, but the documentary/fictionalization approach further probes the film’s theme of identity and interrogates the art form of which it is a part.

Again, drama is low, but watching Sabzien is a reward all on its own, as he brings with him an unpretentious aura and admirable charisma. Sabzien has convinced the Ahankhah family that he is a famous director, perhaps to get money. Hossain Farazmand is the reporter who breaks the story, Kiarostami, as himself, the director who asks Sabzien why he did it and then decides to film the resulting trial. Sabzien’s story is told achronologically, jumping between the trial and Sabzien’s life as an imposter. Asa character study, Close-Up is compelling regardless of whether Kiarostami decides to show us something in flashback or tell us in the courtroom; it is only the occasions where he does both without bringing anything new the second time that this film falters. Those moments are few in number but a little long in length, detracting from what is otherwise a brilliant study of art and how we respond to it. The events are presented in an order that makes Sabzien first appear as a thief, but he is slowly developed into a film-loving intellectual, eager to do nothing more than alert everyone else to the power of film. “The Cyclist is my life,” he says of the Makhmalbaf film at one point. It shows regular people and enlightens regular people. It’s no surprise he wants to share it.

At the same time, the morality of Sabzien’s actions is not ignored. He is on trial for fraud, after all. He pretended to be someone he was not, but if he was well-intentioned, should he be forgiven? Or at least given a lighter sentence? This is the most basic work of Close-Up, and it is a bit redundant, explored largely in courtroom dialogue but never in a riveting debate. The bigger universal is identity. To what extent had Sabzien become Makhmalbaf to himself and to his “victims”? This is the subtext, and it is also the movie’s heart, what ensures that the movie is as good in reality as it is conceptually. When Makhmalbaf and Sabzien meet, there is an understated intimacy that strikes beautifully after so much dialogue. That it is filmed through a camera whose sound recording not only emphasizes the ontological aspects of film, but also makes the footage more intimate. Sofia Coppola would do the same thing over a decade later with Lost In Translation.

A few redundant segments cannot take away from this remarkable achievement. Sabzien is inspired by a director, almost to the point of becoming a director, but he is playing a part—acting, that is—and he is certainly acting in Kiarostami’s recreation, and perhaps even his documentary footage, of the event. Pay attention to how different characters react to this fact. The driver who takes the reporter to the duped family does not know Makhmalbaf; he is willfully ignorant to film and thus, the character study at work. Likewise, the judge sees no reason Kiarostami should be interested in filming the case. That the Ahankhah family is aware of Makhmalbaf but not enough to recognize him tells us something about the interest of the Iranian people in the art, as well as media and culture at the time. What does Sabzien want to do with this family? Certainly not rob them. He wants for them to go to the cinema. He wants for them to go to the cinema, and to understand cinema on an artistic and intellectual level. That he chooses to do this by impersonating a director is an extension of who is truly responsible for enlightening the people—not ordinary men, not even he himself, but artists and filmmakers.

At the same time, the morality of Sabzien’s actions is not ignored. He is on trial for fraud, after all. He pretended to be someone he was not, but if he was well-intentioned, should he be forgiven? Or at least given a lighter sentence? This is the most basic work of Close-Up, and it is a bit redundant, explored largely in courtroom dialogue but never in a riveting debate. The bigger universal is identity. To what extent had Sabzien become Makhmalbaf to himself and to his “victims”? This is the subtext, and it is also the movie’s heart, what ensures that the movie is as good in reality as it is conceptually. When Makhmalbaf and Sabzien meet, there is an understated intimacy that strikes beautifully after so much dialogue. That it is filmed through a camera whose sound recording not only emphasizes the ontological aspects of film, but also makes the footage more intimate. Sofia Coppola would do the same thing over a decade later with Lost In Translation. What Kiarostami found could have been fraud far worse than Sabzien’s crime. His presentation could have been pretentious and empty. Instead it is a beautiful, intimate testament to the power of film. It’s as dense a film as you could ever hope for, and even an abundance of dialogue can barely slow it down.

Grade: A

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