My Cinematic Shortcomings: Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990)

close-upAbbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up is a wonderful look at identity while simultaneously being a wonderful piece of inventive film making.

A docudrama, Close-Up follows Kiarostami’s scramble to capture an incredible true story of an individual, Hossain Sabzian, caught impersonating the famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami becomes a part of the story when after hearing of the odd events he decides he wants to record Sabzian’s trial and tell his tale. Mixing his documentary footage with recreations of the events staring the actual participants, Kiarostami re-creates Sabzian’s story in an inventive way that means so much more as the film’s events unfold.

The more you get to know about Sabzian the more you understand why Kiarostami was so drawn to this story. Sabzian’s loneliness and sadness that are revealed over the course of the film is impossible to be affected by and you are probably sympathetic by the time the credits roll. Why would someone impersonate anyone is an interesting enough story, but a famous filmmaker, going as far as pitching films and running through rehearsals with those that take him in; it’s just bizarre.

The courtroom footage of Sabzian and his accusers, the Ahankhahs, is so raw and full of emotion that the testimonies easily suck you in. Kiarostami has a simple set up during the trial (two cameras; one on the judge and one on the plaintiffs) and often goes with long takes as Sabzian pleads his case, but your attention will never wane. This of course isn’t really because of Kiarostrami’s film making, but the emotions pouring out of everyone that makes these scenes so gripping; and it isn’t just Sabzian. The youngest son of the Ahankhahs, Mehrdad, speaks for the family at the trial and his seething self loathing nature comes pouring through the camera. You can just feel his frustration with being duped by this “Bogus Makhmalbaf” in Sabzian and he becomes the villain of the film even though he is a victim in the trial. This performance carries over into the scenes away from the courtroom as well, as Mehrdad comes across just as whiny and put out at home. An appropriate feeling, sure, but I doubt he thought he would come across as unlikable as he does here.

The courtroom scene in particular has another interesting wrinkle to it, in Kiarostami is allowed to be an active participant. It’s so odd to hear him cut off the judge and address Sabzian, but it’s also essential to the success of the film. He asks the best questions and some of the responses he gets out of Sabzian get right to the core of the man. Sabzian is poor, divorced and these people taking him in as the “Bogus Makhmalbaf” give him a comfort and control he has never had. People listen to him and do as he asks when he is Makhmalbaf and you can instantly understand his allure to taking on this persona. Seeing Sabzian’s mother plead for him only cements our empathy near the end of the film, as those final moments of confession tell us everything we need to know about Sabzian. Though, the most important reveal, at least for the film, is that Sabzian sees himself as more of an actor rather than faux director.

Sabzian’s desire to be an actor is so powerful because he is legitimately great in the re-creation scenes. And no scene better shows off his acting abilities than the heartbreaking reverse scene to the film’s opening arrest of Sabzian. In the opening sequence we are lost and confused as to what exactly is going on as we follow a reporter, cabbie and two police officers to the outside of the, then unknown, Ahankhah’s house. Kiarostami wisely doesn’t let us in on what happens inside, instead focusing on the cabbie waiting and the reporter’s bumbling about after Sabzian is taken away. Saving the scene inside the house till near the climax of the film allows us to know everything we need to know about Sabzian in that moment and that knowledge is essential to making the scene work as well as it does. Bringing the film full circle and making everything that came before it that much more affecting. It was a brilliant choice by Kiarostami, but it was another stroke of genius that gives the film the emotional catharsis to send us home.

Putting Sabzian with Makhmalbaf in the film’s final scenes is the perfect ending for this film as Sabzian is absolved by the one person he might have taken the most advantage of. The two had never met, except through the magic of viewing Makhmalbaf’s films, and seeing the overwhelming emotional response from Sabzian is heart wrenching. Sabzian says earlier in the film that Makhmalbaf’s The Cyclist had greatly affected him (and was often the gateway film to his “Bogus Makhmalbaf” ruse) and I can’t even imagine what went through his head when meeting Makhmalbaf after all he had been through. Kiarostami tweaks the emotion just the right way, cutting out the sound, capturing the pair from a distance all while beautifully framing them on the road to the Ahankhah’s house, Kiarostami even throws in a bit of humor as the pair quickly bond over buying some apologetic flowers. It’s an amazing finish to the film.

This being only the second Kiarostami film I’ve seen, I was much more taken with this compared to Certified Copy; a film that severely tried my patience. I’ve been thinking about the film all day and I will be picking up the Criterion Blu-ray as soon as possible. Hossain Sabzian is one of the most interesting protagonists you will find put on film and he is all the more compelling because he is a real person. Kiarostami’s storytelling is playful and near perfection and I can’t give Close-Up a much higher recommendation.

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