Criterion Fridays – Close-Up

Close-Up (1990, dir. Abbas Kiraostami)

In America, its not uncommon to see a film “based on a true story”. The audience has come to expect that while names and events are real, screenwriters have “punched up” the script with dramatic tropes and formulas designed to add drama to what they see as dull, uninteresting reality. On the opposite end of things, you have documentaries like Capturing the Friedmans where the reality of the situation is so horrific and dramatic we have to wonder how much is exaggerated and manipulated by the director. In Abbas Kiraostami’s film Close-Up he takes an approach to the “based on a real story” movie that is some sort of amalgamation of narrative film and documentary. This is one of few times I have watched a film unable to figure out what was reality and was staged.

The film revolves around the case of Ali Sabzian, a man posing as Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and receiving the good will and shelter of the a family in Tehran as a result. The films opens with an obviously staged scene, the reporter, who first published the story that brought it Kiraostami’s attention, is traveling with police via taxi to the family’s home to witness the arrest of Sabzian. From there the film becomes a patchwork of the actual video footage of Sabzian’s trial and re-enactments of the events. The re-enactments actually feature the real people involved, including Sabzian. The reason this could happen is, that Sabzian never stole from the family he stayed with and the crime was non-violent. By the end of the film, we learn what Sabzian’s motivation was and see the family show great sympathy for him in court.

While most films about real crimes attempt to illuminate and make the mystery something that can be understood, Close-Up works to confuse things and make Sabzian a harder and harder character to pin down. What it becomes is a meditation on why someone not involved in the Arts would feel such a strong connection to someone who made their living off of cinema. Sabzian lives with his mother in the wake of divorce. His wife took one child, his mother raises the other. He works in a dead end job as a printer, and Sabzian claims that in director Makhmalbaf’s work he finds his own suffering put into words he cannot explain. Sabzian is an incredibly sympathetic figure, but even he confuses us because he talks about how he feels drawn to be an actor, that the idea of losing himself in a character is appealing. So, is the Sabzian speaking court truly his honest self, or another persona he has taken on?

This was not going to be the film Kiraostami was supposed to make at the time. However, after reading about the story in the paper he became obsessed with it and couldn’t sleep. So he contacted the parties involved and began making the film. As much as he wants to capture reality on film, he unabashedly manipulates certain scenes. When Sabzian is released from jail at the end of the film, he meets the real Makhmalbaf there are “audio difficulties” with the microphone equipment. Kiraostami has admitted freely after the fact that the audio problems was a manufacturing of him out of respect for the conversation between the two men, but instead of simply saying he was doing this, he made it another layer in the reality and fiction of the film. This is definitely a film that challenges the perceptions of the audience and will make them constantly question the reality or artifice of each and every scene.

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