Friday, July 14, 2017

Close-Up (1990)

Nema-ye Nazdik, Iran, 98 minutes
Director/writer/editor: Abbas Kiarostami
Photography: Ali Reza Zarrindast
Cast: Abbas Kiarostami, Hossain Sabzian, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abolfazi Ahankhah, Mehrdad Ahankhah, Monoochehr Ahankhah, Mahrokh Akankhah, Hossain Farazmand, Hooshang Shamaei, Mohammad Ali Barrati, Davood Goodarzi, Haj Ali Reza Ahmadi

I debated about whether or not I should classify this critical favorite by Iranian director, writer, and editor Abbas Kiarostami as a documentary. Wikipedia calls it "docufiction," which is reasonably close to "docudrama," my first inclination. It's based on true events, with real people from the story, but the scenes are mostly (or sometimes) reenactments, cunningly devised to make points about truth and reality. Then I noticed that in the titles Kiarostami credits himself for "screenplay." Somehow, in my mind, that settled it. A screenplay signals fiction for me, whereas a simple "written by" might have still kept it plausibly in play as a documentary. It's a shady line.

And it doesn't help that the documentaries ranking highest on the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (and its companion 21st-century version as well) already tend to be unusual versions of the mundane fact-based form we usually think of, even operating at highest levels (say, Frederick Wiseman). You might even want to rule them out altogether for various formal infractions. I mean, look: Man With a Movie Camera (too evangelizing), Shoah (too long), The Gleaners and I (too personal), Tie Xi Qu (also too long), and now Close-Up, which I am tentatively calling too meta or postmodern to be a documentary.

We have to be clear about what is truthful and what is fanciful in Close-Up, or try to be, as half the fun of this strange and fascinating picture is attempting to unravel that. It's as much a movie about making movies as even the most indulgent (looking your way, Birdman), starting with using a filmic term as title (see also Day for Night). The true story is about a divorced man in Iran, Hossain Sabzian, who bore some resemblance to the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a key figure in Iran's second cinema new wave of the '80s along with Kiarostami. Out of a mixture of genuine admiration for Makhmalbaf's work and his own inarticulate class (or existential) resentment, Sabzian used the resemblance and played at pretending to be Makhmalbaf when he could get away with it. The elaborate charade with the middle-class Ahankhah family starts with a deception on a public bus of Mahrokh, the family mother, who brings him home and introduces him to the family. After a few days, Sabzian is run to ground and publicly exposed by a breathless journalist, Hossain Farazmand, who has ambitions to be as great as Oriana Fallaci but forgets to bring along a tape recorder when the bust goes down. Sabzian is arrested and taken to trial, but no one understands the motive of the fraud. He borrowed money from the Ahankhahs but never attempted to steal or con large sums from them.

This story is true, it really happened, and in fact most of the principal roles in Close-Up are played by the actual people—all of the Ahankhah family, Makhmalbaf, and of course Sabzian. Kiarostami has a role too, as he was approached in real life by Sabzian to make the film. Other roles, however, such as the journalist Farazmand, the police, and the judge in the trial, are played by actors in scenes that appear to be staged. For example, the first meeting between Kiarostami and Sabzian is played as a bit of a skit, a setup for a punchline. "Is there anything I can do for you?" Kiarostami asks him in a claustrophobic jailhouse, by which it sounds like he's asking if Sabzian needs a toothbrush or other conveniences. Sabzian instead answers, "You could make a film about my suffering."

The scene could equally be documentary serendipity, depending on the likelihood of getting a camera crew in there, as it fits with Sabzian's personality. Sabzian is more or less true to life, a beat-down man approaching middle age who works in a print shop. He is an avid cineaste with an overactive fantasy world bubbling inside, blurring his lines of reality. At times, by his manner, one suspects mental illness. But his admiration for the tricks of cinema also makes him look like a trickster in his own right. He comes across like one of those mad Dostoevsky characters like Raskolnikov who think so fiercely and behave so extremely it verges on ludicrous. But at the same time Sabzian also seems carefully constructed that way.

The trial is a point where the movie seems fanciful if not farcical. The filmmakers audaciously assume more power than they possibly could have (especially in post-revolution Iran). At one point they request the court to change the trial date to better accommodate their shooting requirements. Request denied, but still. It's comical. Then, at the trial, what sounds like an off-camera Kiarostami evidently has license to question Sabzian at will, with the court's tacit permission. All that seems unlikely—yet apparently much of it happened the way we see (one more argument for classifying it as a documentary). Is the trial "real"? I'm honestly not sure—the judge is played by a professional actor, but he might have been cut into scenes shot at the trial. And it appears to be Kiarostami's prodding of Sabzian at the trial that finally produces a soliloquy that is remarkable (and remarkably filmic, in fact the realization of the title), virtually the center of the picture. It's the equivalent of whatever this thing is to "documentary gold."

Close-Up is a quiet film yet somehow explosive, and there is a still more remarkable ending ahead. But this moment at the trial is so wonderful. Sabzian remains the essential mystery of the story, never truly penetrated, as a final freeze frame on his profile gives away an ambiguous small smile of the trickster again. I don't know Makhmalbaf's movies at all, but certainly now I want to look into Sabzian's favorite by him, or most frequently mentioned here, The Cyclist (also known as Bicycleran). A 1974 Kiarostami film that Sabzian also talks about, The Traveler, is similarly quiet, effective, and worth seeing (it's included with Criterion extras on the Close-Up DVD). It's not hard to understand why people were excited about Kiarostami when his movies started coming along in the late '80s and '90s—this quick study has a sharp eye for details, and knows where to linger, as its knotted-up narrative makes its points about media, celebrity, dignity, and art with a sure-handed ease.


  1. I once called Close-Up a "recreation of reality", so I guess I'm on the side of its being fiction. No matter, it's a terrific film.

  2. Did you know Dostoevsky was epileptic? Not sure if that has anything to do w/ all the fierce thinking characters (altho it might) but definitely accounts for some of the spazzy extremes, hyperventilating rants, seizures, blackouts, etc. The Idiot makes the connection most explicit but it's sprinkled throughout. I really liked Taste of Cherry but still need to see this one.