By Afra Nariman
Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami
Stars: Hossain Sabzian, Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf
A docufiction about a man named Sabzian who, while reading a novel by famous Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, strikes up a conversation with a woman. He convinces her that he is Makhmalbaf after she reveals that her family admires the filmmaker’s work. He begins to create a relationship with the family, even telling them that he is working on a new movie that he would like them to star in. He is eventually caught and arrested for fraud. This film reenacts the true story of the incident, with the family playing themselves; and shows us the court proceedings that Sabzian went through.
Have you ever seen an incident in the news, and thought, Wow, this would make for a great movie plot. I know I have. Our world is filled with unique people, each with unique stories of their own, so it’s only natural to look around and find stories that inspire you to think that. This is essentially what director Abbas Kiarostami did with his 1990 masterpiece, Close-Up. Known and critically acclaimed for his masterfully real filmography, starring non-actors in his natural stories; Kiarostami saw this story and knew that he had to tell it. The film is reenacted by the people involved in the real events.
Every second of this film commands your attention like no other film could; because it’s completely real and genuine, though it is also told poetically. It is a character study in many ways, of a real person: a man who is lonely, feels betrayed by society, and limited due to his social class; but finds solace in art and film. Without necessarily planning it, he poses as a famous filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, to impress an admiring family that he meets.
In his revealing responses to the judge’s questions, he reveals a philosophy of the artist; of who an artist is, what they do, and why they are important. Explaining why he posed as the famous filmmaker, he says;
When he is asked to expand on his reasoning as to why he kept it up for so long, he explains that it was because he was given the respect, attention and confidence that he, as an otherwise poor man in society, would never dream of receiving from anybody. As we near the end of the film, Sabzian begins to refine his responses, narrowing in on how films have personally impacted his life, as well as providing us with an intricate perspective of the social class distinctions in his society. In part of his powerful ending remarks to the judge, while pleading his case, he says:
In this response, we’ve been given a social commentary on the class struggles that he has experienced in his life. He touches on this idea throughout the film, bringing to light the negative personal struggles that being in a lower social class can have on someone’s life, and the desperation for food, money and most of all, respect, that it can inspire in someone in his position.
The entire film highlights the clashing aspects of one man’s life, and the combination of his obsessive love of art, his admiration of a certain filmmaker who has portrayed his life and his struggle on screen, as well as his natural desire to be noticed and respected, that together leads him to commit this fraud act. The distinction between what is moral and what is legal is also brought into the film. He explains that he understands what he did was illegal — and he shows remorse for the way he played with the feelings of the family he conned — but he also points out that he had no ill will or malice intent in his actions. He simply enjoyed the respect that he was given when they believed he was an important artist rather than just another man from a low social class. The respect and trust that he was given gave him a confidence that he had never been able to experience due to his monetary place in society.
Early in the film, Sabzian gives us an extremely elusive, yet dynamically insightful quote. He says:
Kiarostami is the master at combining elements of reality (or documentary) and fiction. His films, and perhaps none more than Close-Up, aim to reveal a certain truth. To arrive at that greater truth, though, films often times need to portray a pseudo-truth on their way there — art must don a veil. In the same light, Sabzian, a man who lacks opportunity, is a film lover who needed to hide behind a veil, to lie, in order to experience what it was to be a filmmaker and artist; giving us our story. This quote alludes to — and this film subtly speaks to — the lack of artistic freedom in Iranian cinema. Kiarostami found a real story, and recreated it so that it would unfold on screen in a way that allows it to get his messages across. Sabzian represents the suppressed artist, his understanding of art and film represents the role of an artist, and his experiences in life represent the people whom artists speak for.
Close-Up is an utterly natural illustration of filmmaking in its purest form. It is a film that commentates on filmmaking, and the social limitations around the art and it’s personal impact, both in terms of the filmmaker and the audience member. It features a portrayal of the suffering of a man in love with cinema, but in no way able to express his passion and experience a life in the world of cinema without deceiving his way into doing so. It highlights the role of the artist/filmmaker, as one responsible for mirroring the suffering and reality of those without the means to express themselves to a world that often overlooks or ignores them. It does this both through Sabzian’s explanation as to why he admires film and art so much, as well as through the development of the film’s overarching storyline. It both speaks to the artist’s role in society, and illustrates it to us.
This film has an unparalleled level of depth to it, that is best received by watching it, as my words can only do so much in relaying the film’s message and its effectiveness. Close-Up is easily one of the greatest films ever made. It adheres strictly to Kiarostami’s filmmaking philosophy, of creating a story that doesn’t take you hostage through explicitly forcing emotional or personal messages on the audience; but instead by affecting us mentally through the creation of a poetic story, grounded in reality — as much as the path to an elusive truth allows. By doing this, he creates a film that gives us time to ponder the story and their messages long after the film has ended. Like all of his films, Close-Up does just that. It gives us a window into reality from a person’s unique perspective. It is what the film does for you after it has finished, that will stick with you most. That being said, Close-Up is arguably his most engaging film, in that it does not permit you to lose focus for one second. It provides us with explicitly important content, as well as what all of his films do, which is provide us with elusive images and ideas that allow us to reflect on them, and over time, expand their meaning in our mind.