Close-Up (1990)
January 23, 2024 3:38 PM - Subscribe

The true story of Hossain Sabzian, a cinephile who impersonated the director Mohsen Makhmalbaf to convince a family they would star in his so-called new film.

While reading a novel by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf on the bus, Ali Sabzian strikes up a conversation with a pretty girl, Mahrokh Ahankhah. When she tells him her family admires Makhmalbaf's work, Ali pretends to be the filmmaker to impress her. Becoming friendly with the Ahankhahs, Ali tells them he is preparing a new movie, but when they uncover his true identity, he is arrested for fraud. This film reenacts the true story of the incident, with Ali and the family playing themselves.

Anna Weltner: Close Up’s narrative techniques allow room to explore the poetry beyond the headline “Bogus Makhmalbaf Arrested” and offers Sabzian and the family the rare opportunity to perform the past again, perhaps improving on it the second time. Part of the tension and joy of watching Close Up lies in knowing what a feat this is.

By the film’s ending, we see that it has worked. In a truly documentary moment (punctuated by the sound of a lapel mic that only half works,) the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf accompanies the imposter Sabzian to the family’s home, where Sabzian asks for forgiveness. Both men are welcomed in with a kiss. This final scene suggests that the cathartic process of recreating the past as a narrative film has led to this unlikely, beautiful, and unscripted reconciliation.

Maddie Freeman: Or is it? Throughout the film, the viewer—any viewer with an inkling of backstory—is also engaged as investigator. Which elements are truth, which are false, and which are a little of both? It’s tempting to slice up the film scene by scene and declare that one reenactment and that one documentary, but Kiarostami’s methods were unorthodox throughout, so you’re left guessing even after you’ve done your homework. If you have the actual players “act out” a scene that has real-world consequences, to what degree are they acting at all? To what degree does the observation medium, the camera, change the behavior of those depicted? Rarely do life and art intersect so messily.

Josh Larsen: So, is this documentary or fiction? Best leave that question to academics and instead consider the movie through Sabzian’s eyes (whether he’s “acting” or not). This is a person who has become obsessed with the cinema to the point that he longer knows where it ends and he begins. Sure, the authority he has as a supposed director brings some order to what we sense is an aimless life, but Sabzian’s reason for the ruse goes deeper. When he describes one of Makhmalbaf’s films as “a part of me,” we begin to understand just how deeply a piece of art can affect a person’s sense of self.

Back to the bigger questions. Does Close-Up reveal the truth? I’d prefer to say it reveals the beauty of distortion. A common Kiarostami visual trope is employed here, in which the camera shoots through the windshield of a car as its occupants converse. These are flickering glimpses rather than clear shots, as light bounces off the glass and reflections of passing objects create evolving Rorschach tests across the actors’ faces. This may not be the truest, most pristine depiction of the people in the car, but it’s infinitely more illuminating than a standard, unobstructed shot would be. Perhaps so many of Kiarostami’s films – Close-Up being the definitive one – don’t care about the line between documentary and fiction because, in the grand sense, he doesn’t see one.

posted by Carillon (2 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
A very interesting film. I wonder how it plays if you don't know the central conceit. It almost requires you to know, but otherwise it might come across as poorly acted? There's so much going on though, and it switches between 'real' and 'fiction', I just saw it and really am still wrestling with it. I'm not sure it's an aesthetic achievement as a film, but a philosophical commentary instead? I can see how he is the director that later made certified copy.
posted by Carillon at 3:43 PM on January 23 [2 favorites]

We watched it a month ago because we've been going through the Sight & Sound list in order and it's #17. We did not know the central conceit. I think the credits might have said up front that people were playing themselves but I figured it might just be a metafictional trick. I wasn't sure how to take the "framing device" (there's a crew supposedly filming the trial and doing interviews... only it turns out it's not supposedly) and didn't know what had actually been going on until I looked on the web afterwards. It's probably not how the film was intended to be viewed but it was still compelling that way, and it was an interesting experience to have it all be quite different in retrospect.
posted by dfan at 6:39 AM on January 24

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