Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990) is a docu-fiction film that is a rendering of real life events depicted by the actual people who went through these events. The film follows Hossain Sabzian, a lower-income paper clerk, as he impersonates the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and tricks a family into giving him their time and money. Sabzian tells the family that they will be given lead roles in his upcoming film, and he even makes them practice their lines. During the main portion of the film—Sabzian’s real-life court procedure—Kiarostami recreates everything that happened in real life leading up to Sabzian’s arrest, such as Sabzian’s first encounter with Mahrokh Ahankhah (the mother of the family) on public transport– where he signs a copy of “his” screenplay for The Cyclist. During the court proceedings, Sabzian is framed in a close-up shot the entire time (hence the title) and must defend and explain his actions in front of the judge. In addition to being a courtroom procedure film, the audience is witness to moments of the filmmaking process through scenes with Kiarostami and his team. For example, there is a stretch of scene dedicated to Kiarostami asking a judge to secure a permit to film during the trial, which they do receive.
Starting with the arrest of Hossain Sabzian, Kiarostami introduces us to the journalist/reporter (Hossain Farazmand) who writes the article “Bogus Makhmalbaf Arrested” and takes photos of Sabzian for the article. He is accompanied by two military officers and a cab driver. These characters are on their way to arrest Sabzian by way of a taxi. During the ride they have a long conversation with the taxi cab driver explaining the situation with details (as though we are sitting with them). When they arrive, after asking for directions, the journalist goes into the Ahankhah home and returns for the officers. The officers go in and soon come back with Sabzian handcuffed to one of them. While this ordeal with Sabzian goes on, there is a fantastic long-take of the taxi driver standing near a paint can rolling in the breeze. Later, that same paint can is kicked by the journalist, which seems to be insignificant but demonstrates Kiarostami’s attention to detail.
As the film goes on, there are scenes that Kiarostami stages and there are scenes that feel real, reality seems to blend with a fictional retelling of events. The long-take in the courtroom with a close-up shot and grainy picture feels real, and give us an authentic documentary-like production. The way Kiarostami uses a documentary style but also has everyone reenact events like a regular fiction film makes Close-Up special, especially between the trial and those reenactments where it blurs the lines between fiction and reality. For example, before the trial we have the filmmakers visit Sabzian in prison, which we assume is a real life rendering but could also be a reenactment. Later in the film, we are shown another perspective as they are arresting Sabzian. The interior of the Ahankhah house is shown when the journalist and officers from the beginning come to arrest Sabzian. Sabzian is given lunch like he is a part of the family, however this is the moment when the family is fooling him, because they know he is not who he says he is. We are given another perspective of the same event, which was another impressive moment of attention to detail.
The ending is probably the part that affected me the most. The scenes where the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf comes to see Sabzian after the wannabe director is given a pardon and released from prison are extraordinary. You really feel the excitement and deep admiration in Sabzian’s reactions to Makhmabaf, and it is ironic that Makhmabaf mentions that he is actually tired of being himself. Due to Sabzian’s excitement driving him to tears, the audience can only hope that Makhmabaf chooses to include Sabzian, and the Ahankhah family, in his new film production or atleast befriends them as an ending scene. I also particularly like the very popular shot in this film where Makhmalbaf is on his motorcycle with Sabzian who is holding potted red flowers. These flowers are for the Ahankhah family as an apology, and in some shots the flowers obscure Sabzian’s face with their bright red hue.
What struck me about the ending was the Ahankhah family’s reaction to Sabzian as he rings the doorbell and calls on the intercom system. Sabzian states his real name to the family and they dismiss him as they do not recognize his name. This dismissal of Sabzian is a blow to him as he came to appreciate the recognition he gets by being Makhamalbaf. Sabzian cries in the moment, which feels authentic because all of these characters lived the events they are portraying and the tears are the tears of a man who truly appreciates cinema and the arts. The film wraps up with the line, “I hope he’ll be good now and make us proud of him,” which is ambiguous but also presents the family as genuinely forgiving or moving on from Sabzian’s impersonation. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if their forgiveness stems from the attention the story received.
As a piece of art, Close-Up’s use of real life events captured my attention. I was particularly interested in the retelling of events, and the documentary-style production paired with each character playing themselves. A deeply human film, and one that explores a variety of topics associated with identity, and the undeniable fact that some choose to live as someone else. One cannot help empathizing with Sabzian, a cinephile, who soothingly describes his love for art and film as the reasons for his fraud. Sabzian’s monologue about cinema and the arts is incredibly relatable as someone who appreciates cinema and literature. The film portrays Sabzian’s existence as someone who never was able to pursue his passion, which must be why the film resonates with so many people.
3.85 out 5
— Christian Mietus, Blog Editor.
Christian is a Junior at Lewis University who is an English major and a minor in Film Studies and Russian Language and Culture. In 2019, he received the “Dr. Stephany Schlachter Excellence in Undergraduate Scholarship Award” for his collaborative piece “Assimilation through Sound.” Additionally, his poem “The Japanese Photography is Covered in Dust” is forthcoming from City Brink Magazine. In his free time, he appreciates and dissects cinema as well as consistently rating and reviewing it. Some of his favorite directors are Andrei Tarkovsky, John Cassavettes, Ingmar Bergman, and Kenji Mitzoguchi. He also appreciates different art forms, such as music and literature. Christian hopes to continue expanding his skills as a writer and to encourage others to do so as well. He writes about film for the JFR blog, so check out Christian’s Cinematic Syntax.