Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 docudrama Close-Up completely buries the defining line between documentary and drama. It’s a subversive piece of meta filmmaking that comments on the value of art and cinema through the trial of one overzealous man whose desire to live vicariously through the films — and filmmaker’s — he loves drove him to deception.
The opening ten minutes of Close-Up manages to lay out the entire plot of the film while still keeping the audience completely in the dark. Two dashboard mounted cameras capture a taxi ride — in what seems to be real time — as a journalist and two police officers arrive at the home of an upper-class family to arrest a man who’s been fraudulently impersonating Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. We slowly learn that the suspect, Hosein Sabzian, had told the family he was Makhmalbaf, convincing them to invite him to their home under the guise that he was scouting locations for his latest film. After his arrest, Sabzian is approached by Kiarostami — the director of this film appearing on screen as himself — in jail, recreating their initial real-life meeting as they discuss the idea of retelling his story on film. From here we meet the judge of the case in another recreation in which permission is granted Kiarostami to tape Sabzian’s trial. Although the request is met with a question; why this trial? It’s such a mundane case in comparison to some of the more violent or sensational crimes. Kiarostami explains that it’s the connection to cinema that intrigues him. At this point, the film begins integrating real life video footage of the trial, using it as a sort of framing device connecting the recreations throughout the rest of the movie.
This sort of mixing of documentary and drama is nothing new, but what Kiarostami is doing here is beyond your typical docudrama. Close-Up reminds me of the films of Peter Watkins (The War Game, Punishment Park) or more recently, Paul Greengrass. In fact, the most modern equivalent that comes to mind is United 93. Both films re-enact real events using the actual people who were involved (well, obviously United 93 had some actors as well) in a shockingly convincing fashion. The interesting thing about Close-Up is the main characters love of art and cinema. His whole reasoning behind engaging in this fraudulent activity comes from his love of film; more specifically, the films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf. During the documentary trial footage, we learn that Sabzian had no intention of robbing or taking advantage of the family he deceived. Taking on the role of Makhmalbaf simply brought him closer to his love of art. Sabzian, through whatever circumstances — social, economical, etc. — is forced to play-act the role of a director in some sort of attempt at self-validation. The family slowly begin to realize Sabzian’s intentions weren’t entirely criminal.
Any initial reservations about Sabzian’s character are dealt with by the end of the film in an extremely touching and genuine fashion. It’s such an unusual circumstance in which this story is presented; a man so desperately wanting to be a part of cinema playing the role of himself in a film about himself going to such extreme lengths to be in the movies. A total meta mind fuck in the best possible way. There’s a moment during the trial when Sabzian is asked whether or not, after successfully maintaing this charade, he thinks he would make a better actor than director. He responds “I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I’m more interested in acting. I think I could express all the bad experiences I’ve had, all the deprivation I’ve felt with every fibre of my being. I think I could get these feelings across through my acting.” When asked what part he would like to play, he answers “My own”.
Criterion presents Close-Up in it’s original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The newly restored high-definition transfer looks great but those bothered by the occasional scratch or speck of dust might be put off because the source isn’t quite 100% clean. Personally, I didn’t mind at all. The cinematography is fairly raw — although at times quite beautiful — and the occasional flaw simply retained an appropriate authenticity considering the content. The supplemental materials include an audio commentary by Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, authors of Abbas Kiarostami; The Traveler, director Abbas Kiarostami’s first feature; “Close-Up” Long Shot, a documentary on Close-Up’s central figure, Hossein Sabzian; a new video interview with Kiarostami; and A Walk with Kiarostami (2003), a documentary portrait of the director by Iranian film professor Jamsheed Akrami. — Jay C.
This review was originally published at Film Junk.com.