Films are a lot of different things to different people. They can be sources of entertainment, mirrors of society, or even keepers of history. But for some, they are a source of obsession and a sort of identity to adopt as they evoke the need to live in that film world that the art depicts.
This is exactly the case in Close-Up (1990), Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s wonderful metafilm that looks at the true story of unemployed film lover Hossein Sabzian’s attempt at passing off as his idol, director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
The film uses aspects of documentary and drama to reconstruct Sabzian’s story partly using flashbacks. The people who were involved in the real incident appear as themselves and the scenes in the court are the real footage filmed by the director from the trial that took place after Sabzian's arrest.
The storyline in Close-Up develops simply enough to show and help us understand the problem of human identity as impersonated by Hossein Sabzian.
Sabzian is a film enthusiast and fan of Makhmalbaf. While in a bus reading a book called The Cyclist one day, he meets Mrs Ahankhah, a fan of the piece of literature and its film adaptation, both by Makhmalbaf. Now pretending to be the famous director, Sabzian visits the Ahankhah family many times over the following weeks.
He tells them he wants to use their house for his next film and that their sons will be actors in it. Sabzian goes to the extent of obtaining money from Mehrdad Ahankhah, one of the sons, “to prepare for the film”. But Mr Ahankhah is doubtful about Sabzian being Makhmalbaf. A magazine photo shows a filmmaker who is younger than the one in his house and who has darker hair. He invites Hossain Farazmand, a journalist friend, to check if Sabzian is a fake. This turns out to be the case. Police arrest the fraudster as Farazmand covers the event for his publication.
These re-enactments are mixed with scenes from events of Kiarostami’s filming of the actual Sabzian trial and are in nonlinear narrative format. The dialogue, in Persian, is part of what makes this film by Abbas Kiarostami, who has directed such classics as Palme d'Or-winner The Taste of Cherry and Palme d'Or-nominee Ten, an exciting film.
It is involving for the characters and it plays a very important role for viewers because as much as it makes Close-Up a somewhat predictable story, it helps provide a background and a guide to what follows. The opening scene in the taxi is the perfect example. From here, we can’t help but enjoy the engaging conversation between the journalist Farazmand and the driver Hooshang Shamaei that ranges from where they are going to why they are heading there and Iranian culture. On the viewer’s end, we anticipate what will come up.
Abbas Kiarostami, a notable figure of the 1960’s Iranian New Wave – innovative art films with political, philosophical and poetic tones – has a distinct and pleasing style to his approach in Close-Up. Cinematographer Ali Reza Zarrindast’s shot of an insecticide can rolling down the street for what seems to be an eternity can be appreciated as part of the film’s childlike sense of wonder.
Moreover, we don’t see Makhmalbaf’s face when he converses with police, officials and the conned family. His head is the camera’s point of view – another standout feature of Close-Up.
The acting, particularly by Sabzian, is fantastic. He is so real and so relaxed. You can barely tell any difference between his re-enactment and his recording in the documentary-within-the film.
That Kiarostami intentionally doesn’t want to make Close-Up a perfect film – incorporating footage that has shaky, hand-held camerawork, and poor audio from his documentary – makes this an amazing production in itself. Close-Up is a splendid show of the power film has over individuals.