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'Close-Up' Review: Abbas Kiarostami Movie in Pantheon of Quasi-Documentaries

Close-Up Abbas Kiarostami
Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up

Abbas Kiarostami is one of those “name” non-American directors who is looked to as a god. The low-budget Nema-ye Nazdik / Close-Up is the second Kiarostami effort I have seen and it is an excellent film. [Note: spoilers ahead]

Close-Up is a pseudo-documentary – not a mockumentary, even though it has been labeled as such. Written and directed by Kiarostami between the making of two bigger-budgeted projects, Close-Up shows what pouncing upon something that just happens can do for an artist. Sometimes it's not the force of creation, but the moment of recognition that defines when a piece of good art is wrought.

Everyone in the film plays themselves, as the tale is putatively based upon real events. I should add that there is some dispute over how factual the initial tale was and how it was influenced by Kiarostami's decision to film some elements in media res, and others after the fact – all in under seven weeks from the time he is supposed to have heard about the tale.

Yet, in Close-Up what is real and what is staged does not matter because what ends up on screen is fully compelling, while providing incredible insights into the universality of human nature and the specifics of the Iranian justice system.

The story follows wannabe artist Hossain Sabzian, who impersonates real-life filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Cyclist, Gabbeh, A Moment of Innocence) while trying to fool a well-to-do family. Sabzian is caught and put on trial for fraud, but in the course of the film it is revealed that he was not a crook, but a deeply disturbed and lonely man who got off on being fawned over by the rich folk. In a fact, in a sense the family was as responsible as Sabzian for the whole episode. (Sabzian put me in mind of another pathetic loser, The Mayor of Sunset Strip's Rodney Bingenheimer. Sabzian, however, is a bit more complex even if his sociopolitical standing is lower than Bingenheimer's.)

Following mostly monologues in the courtroom, which rapt a viewer in a way few films since Louis Malle's My Dinner with Andre have managed to do, the family withdraws their complaint and pardons Sabzian, believing that he was, indeed, just a deluded and pathetic soul.

The epilogue shows Sabzian and Makhmalbaf going to the family's home and commiserating with them, as well as showing that Sabzian is a changed man, for he weeps and begs forgiveness from all involved. Whether or not his change is genuine is debatable, but it seems likely. And that the Iranian court system was so lenient in Sabzian's case is quite surprising, given all we get to hear of it.

Close-Up aptly plays upon its “looseness” between genres and with facts. What is “real” or staged is not as important as what is enlightening; and perhaps the most enlightening element in the film is how vain and shallow the rich folk are. They are, in every sense, as shallow as countless wealthy Americans. And the fact that they, unlike Hossain Sabzian, never seem to be acting, makes the indictment against their failings even more damning than the one against Sabzian. Of course, Sabzian has a dim, if trite, realization of this, when he moans something along the lines of “We are the slaves of a mask hiding our true face. If we free ourselves from this, the beauty of truth will be ours.”

Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami
Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up

Something else worth noting is that although Close-Up was made almost two decades ago, there is an odd feeling one gets while watching Sabzian, for, albeit radically different in nature and demeanor, he looks very much like Iran's current wacko president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Not that this was apparent at the time, when Sabzian had his moment in the sun whereas Ahmadinejad was a nobody, but it emphasizes just how human a character Sabzian is.

Sabzian, incidentally, is easily the best “actor” in the film; the others, especially the rich family members, look like amateurs, which adds to the “realism” as well as highlighting the dissonance between the real and near-real. And in a case of “poetic justice,” Sabzian actually becomes the star of his own film – one made by someone else about him and the destruction of his dream.

Close-Up occupies an unusual spot in a pantheon of films that includes the whole of Michael Moore's quasi-documentaries, as well as Orson Welles' brilliant F for Fake. Close-Up, however, feels “realer” – all the credit for that feat must go to Abbas Kiarostami for the film was shot and edited in a very simple, straightforward manner. It's what Kiarostami includes into and excludes from his narrative that makes Close-Up.

The Facets Video DVD of Close-Up does not qualitatively match up with the film itself; there are scratches, blemishes, and a washed-out look to the print. Additionally, the sound is not of the best quality, even though I'm mindful of several scenes where Kiarostami deliberately lets the sound be lost. The film comes with English subtitles, but no English-language track.

The DVD's extra features include filmographies of Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, plus a brief interview with Kiarostami. There is no film commentary track, even though this is the sort of work that could have led to the creation of a great one, especially by someone like film critic Roger Ebert. Although the DVD cover lists Close-Up at 100 minutes, in reality it's only 93 minutes long.

Ultimately, Close-Up plays out like one of those nested folk dolls within a folk doll, within a folk doll, etc., in that films led to a real-life situation which led to another real-life situation which led to a film. Though not quite a great film, Close-Up is far closer to that level than one might conceive of a bare-bones effort with such a simple premise. Once again, the credit for this feat must go to Kiarostami – a man whose art clearly is a synergy of lesser things. It will be interesting to see just how high his work can reach, if he is able to get a bit more to work with.

Summing up, Close-Up is a film any lover of cinema should see. It's also a film that vapid types should watch as well, for Hossain Sabzian is likely the best mirror those sorts will ever get.

© Dan Schneider

NEMA-YE NAZDIK / CLOSE-UP (1990). Dir. / Scr.: Abbas Kiarostami. Cast: Hossain Sabzian, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami.

Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide.

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