Original release: 1990
Running time: 98 minutes
Country of origin: Iran
Original language: Persian & Azerbaijani
Writer and director: Abbas Kiarostami
Cast: Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Hossain Sabzian, Mahrokh Ahankhah, Abolfazl Ahankhah
My name is Ben, and I am a cinephile. Naturally, in these surroundings I’m preaching to a largely zealous choir, but it’s a good thing to get off the chest and it’s often the most relevant factor in choosing what to do with my spare time and what films to watch next. I’d say a fair proportion of my life is taken up with pining for the films I’ve not seen, considering the ones I have and imagining the marathons I would indulge in were it not for the real world.
Given this, I’ve always considered the gaping Abbas-Kiarostami-shaped-hole in my film knowledge as something desperately in need of addressing but have, for whatever reason, never got around to his work. The fates recently aligned though and I was lent his film, Close-Up, just a matter of weeks prior to the Sight & Sound Greatest Films Poll 2012 which placed it at number 43 along with Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Some Like It Hot (1959).
Funnily enough, it’s Godard who’s most often quoted with regard to the Iranian director, having famously said “Film begins with D.W. Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.” Now for my own beginning, of sorts, with Close-Up.
I came to the film with absolutely no knowledge of it whatsoever, which is regrettable in some ways as I think that knowing a little about the story and, more importantly, how the film came about and its production adds an enormous amount to the proceedings. However, the way in which I watched it meant I was able to enjoy it as a film in its own right before returning to re-watch key scenes once I’d read up on the film after the credits had rolled.
Beginning with a protracted taxi ride across Tehran, we learn that the passenger in the front seat is a journalist on his way to claim a prize scoop while the two men in the back are police accompanying the reporter to a house where they’ll be making an arrest. The criminal in question is a man who has apparently ingratiated himself to a well-off family by pretending to be a celebrated film director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and may or may not be intending to swindle them. The whole thing takes place in a documentary style, including footage from the subsequent trial and various flashbacks to the deception itself.
In this initial viewing, at face value, Kiarostami tells the tale of the conflict between one’s ‘self’ and one’s ‘ideal self’. We learn that the man, Hossain Sabzian, did pose as Makhmalbaf but as he speaks about this in court we come to understand that it was due to the way the Ahankhah family responded to him and the treatment he received from them when they believed him to be the director. Makhmalbaf is clearly Sabzian’s idol and being able to bask in his glow, if only for a moment, was the reason for the deception.
The court case is punctuated with moments from the preceding weeks such as Sabzian’s initial lie to Mahrokh Ahankhah when he met her on a bus while reading Mukhmalbaf’s writing and claimed to be the director.
Close-Up, in this respect is fantastic and compelling, but it’s after further investigation that it was elevated even further in my estimation. In the opening credits it’s clear that each of the actors is playing themselves (including Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf) but this is not explained. What was, in fact, the case is that the story being told is a true one and each of the players are acting out reconstructions of events that had actually occurred in their lives. Or at least, this is the case for the majority of the film.
The story revolves around the central trial. This was the real life trial of Hossain Sabzian which the judge had allowed Kiarostami to sit in on and film. When it was over (after only an hour), the officials left and our central characters remained behind to be questioned further by the filmmaker. These two separate things are blended together on screen to form a surreal docu-fictional trial in which Kiarostami is allowed to interrupt proceedings and ask questions of Sabzian and his accusers.
The effect is that of looking back on a film that seemed like realist drama with naturalistic performances and instead seeing these people re-enacting moments from their own lives just months after their original occurrence. The awkwardness felt within the house as they secretly await the arrival of the journalist and police is palpable enough but when we consider they’re recreating actual events it takes on an entirely new level of fascination.
The playfulness with which Kiarostami merges reality and fiction in this way not only makes the film a standout exploration of reality and fantasy but also further examines these ideas of the real and ideal self. For a film which has a plot revolving around duplicity, we must ask how real those people are that we see in the flashbacks, or even in the courtroom, given that that they know they’re being filmed.
There’s a moment in the trial where one of the plaintiffs accuse Sabzian of continuing to act; the irony we also see him portraying himself throughout the film should not be lost. The film is encouraging all of these people to show the world their ideal selves. The director takes it a step further when, in the final scenes, he actively becomes the director of their real lives as he orchestrates an event and shoots it – the result is a heartbreaker, even before we consider it’s totally real.
Jared Rapfogel over at Sense Of Cinema describes Close-Up and Makhmalbaf’s The Moment of Innocence (1996) as telling “the story of telling the story, and they tell the story of making a movie of telling the story.” ¹ I’m informed that the themes of reality and fiction are some that Kiarostami revisits regularly throughout his career and if the further exploration is done as well as in this film, I’m incredibly happy to have begun my own journey through his stories within movies within stories.
Ben has had a keen love of moving images since his childhood but after leaving school he fell truly in love with films. His passion manifests itself in his consumption of movies (watching films from all around the globe and from any period of the medium’s history with equal gusto), the enjoyment he derives from reading, talking and writing about cinema and being behind the camera himself having completed his first co-directed short film in mid-2011.
His favourite films include things as diverse as The Third Man, In The Mood For Love, Badlands, 3 Iron, Casablanca, Ran and Grizzly Man to name but a few.