Close-Up (1990) ****
Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami.
Written by: Abbas Kiarostami.
Starring: Hossain Sabzian (Himself), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Himself), Abolfazl Ahankhah (Himself), Mehrdad Ahankhah (Himself), Monoochehr Ahankhah (Himself), Mahrokh Ahankhah (Herself), Nayer Mohseni Zonoozi (Herself), Ahmad Reza Moayed Mohseni (Family Friend), Hossain Farazmand (Reporter), Hooshang Shamaei (Taxi Driver), Mohammad Ali Barrati (Soldier), Davood Goodarzi (Sergeant), Haj Ali Reza Ahmadi (Judge), Abbas Kiarostami (Himself).
The film centers of Hossian Sabzian, a man who is getting divorced, losing contract with his kids and barely works part time. His one escape is movies – in particular the films of director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. One day while riding the bus and reading a copy of The Cyclist, Makhmalbaf’s novel that he turned into a film, he strikes up a conversation with Mahrokh Ahankhah, who is a fan of the movie. Sabzian tells her that he really is Moakhmalbaf himself, and although she is at first skeptical, he eventually convinces her. He starts coming around to the Ahankhah household, flattering them by telling them that he wants to shoot his next movie in their home – with them as the stars. But eventually Aholfazi Ahankhah, the father of the family, grows suspicious and calls on a reporter friend of his who has previously met the real Moakhmalbaf. Eventually Sabzian’s ruse is discovered, and he is carted off to jail.
Kiarostami read an article about the arrest, and was fascinated by the story. What kind of man would imitate a film director? Why was he doing it? What did he hope to gain from it? Did he really think he was going to get away with it? His resulting film does his best to answer these questions – but goes much deeper than that.
The film is not told in chronological order. It opens with a reporter on his way to the Ahankhah house with two cops and a cab driver, hoping to capture the arrest of Sabzian. This scene is an reenactment, and it’s a very strange one – because it doesn’t have much to do with the rest of the film. Kiarostami lets the cab driver tell a story about his life in the airforce, and eventually when the car is parked outside and the reporter is waiting to go in, his camera will follow a can as it rolls down the street, away from the house. In doing this, Kiarostami is showing us the multiple viewpoints any story can take – and how in fact, there are many stories to tell, and he is only telling one of them.
The rest of the movie is intercut between these reenactments, in which Sabzian and the Ahanhkhah family, as well as the reporter and the police, play themselves inside the real house where the events took place and Sabzian’s trial, which is almost surreal, but is in fact his actual trial. Why this is confusing is because often, Kiarostami, who is filming it all, will stop the trial to ask his own questions. The judge looks on with a bemused grin on his face, not quite believing all this is happening.
What emerges ultimately is a portrait of Sabzian as a sympathetic, yet also pathetic loser. I was reminded of Rupert Pupkin in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, as Sabzian cannot quite grasp why people do not like him. He bemoans his station in his life, and while his poverty is quite real, and that makes him somewhat sympathetic, it does not really excuse what he does in the film. He, like many, wants fame, but doesn’t want to do anything to get it. In this way, he is not all that unlike the Ahankhah family themselves, who are flattered when they think a filmmaker wants to make a film about them. At least Sabzian is poor, and really has nothing going on his life, so he grasps at straws, but what is their excuse? At the trial, they seem unimpressed by Sabzian and his reasons, so why then do they agree to take part in the reenactments?
The film plays with the boundaries between fiction and reality right up until its final scene. In that scene, Sabzian is let out of jail, and is met by the real Makhamlbaf, who drives him on his motorcycle to the Ahanhkhah house to apologize. Kiarostami and Makhamlbaf have had a well publicized feud for years, so how Kiarostami convinced the other director to be in his film is beyond me, but Kiarostami has the last laugh. Not liking what Makhamlbaf was saying, he plays with the sound – saying there are “technical” problems, so he can cut out Makhamlbaf’s words that do not fit into his narrative.
Close-Up is a fascinating film. Kiarostami has played with the lines between fiction and reality since then – in films like Taste of Cherry, Ten and Certified Copy (and I assume others, that I have not seen), but never as effectively as he does here. Apparently Sabzian does not like the film, or how he is portrayed in it. More likely, he isn’t happy that being the “star” of Kiarostami’s film didn’t led him to fame or fortune, or a career in the spotlight that he thinks he is entitled to. You have to wonder if he learned anything at all.