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-[Film Reviews]-, Middle Eastern & North African Cinema

‘Close-Up’ (1990): When Cinephilia Goes Wrong


Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami || Produced by: Ali Reza Zarrin

Screenplay by: Abbas Kiarostami || Starring: Hossain Sabzian, Abolfazl Ahankhah, Mehrdad Ahankhah, Monoochehr Ahankhah, Mahrokh Ahankhah, Haj Ali Reza Ahmadi, Hooshang Shamaei, Nayer Mohseni Zonoozi

Cinematography: Ali Reza Zarrindast || Edited by: Abbas Kiarostami || Country: Iran || Language: Persian

Running Time: 98 minutes

Film critics and academics lap up any and all quality cinema that examines the boundaries of the art form and reality. Given the quality of Abbas Kiarostami’s magnum opus and most widely recognized film outside the Middle East (not to mention the director’s international breakthrough), Close-Up is a once in a generation movie that acts as both a cautionary tale of the perils of cinephilia while at the same time highlights and largely vindicates one man’s admiration and adoration for film that allowed others to understand his deeper humanity and the universal humanists problems he faces.

That man is one Hossain Sabzian, accused in the year 1990 of impersonating a famous Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, to a middle-class Iranian family and allegedly planning to rob them. As the story goes, Sabzian met the mother of the family of interest while riding on a bus as he was perusing a copy of one of Makhmalbaf’s screenplays. The wife recognized the script book and started up a conversation with him. Through sheer ballsy chance or pure impulse, Sabzian pretended to be the author of the screenplay (apparently the appearances of Iranian filmmakers are not widely known to the Iranian public nor are their photographs widely circulated), and one thing led to another before Sabzian was meeting with the family on a daily basis, proposing to have them star in his next film, closely inspecting and crashing at their house to prepare for said film, and even borrowing money for random chores. Gradually the family grew suspicious as various things began to not add up, and they had Sabzian arrested on charges of fraud and suspicions of planning to rob them.

close up courtroom

Sabzian (right) and the Ahankhah family and press (left) speak at the trial.

This is where Close-Up’s writer-director, Karostami, another famous Persian filmmaker, stepped in. Upon learning of the incident, Kiarostami convinced both Sabzian and the family he deceived to star in a reenactment of the affair, and proceeded to film not only Sabzian’s subsequent trial, but also the aftermath and reconciliation of all the parties involved. What’s fascinating about CU’s largely experimental concept is similar to what is making Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) a raving modern phenomenon. All the “characters” in CU are played by their actual real-life counterparts or, to put in more bluntly, everyone in CU plays themselves. Sabzian, the family, and even the judiciary officials overseeing the trial are acting as themselves, with parts leading up to the courtroom drama being complete reenactments of what actually happened in the past, and then Kiarostami records the actual trial itself and the outcome as they play out in real life. In the end, the Ahankhah family legally forgives Sabzian’s trespasses (something that’s officially reconcilable in Islamic courts) after seeing that he meant little harm by deceiving them and explained how he wanted to feel important, raise his self-esteem, and somehow channel an artist (Makhmalbaf) whom he greatly admired and claimed gave voice to the suffering of those like him (Sabzian) in his films. Later Kiarostami orchestrates a meeting between Sabzian and the real-life Makhalbaf, which brings Sabzian to tears, and they both travel the Ahankhah household and officially reconcile. All the while Kiarostami films these events even amidst technical problems with the audio recording.

As it turns out Kiarostami is every bit as deceptive as his main subject of interest. Kiarostami’s film is officially labeled a “docufiction” film, meaning that is a cinematic combination of documentary and fictional motion picture elements. More specifically, it’s primarily a documentary that inserts fictional elements into its “narrative” to poke and prod its audience into better recognizing the truth about reality. However, even that label doesn’t really fit CU. All the parts leading up the centerpiece trial are clearly reenacted (though cinematically convincing), and even the events including and beyond the trial are heavily orchestrated, guided, and even scripted by Kiarostami himself. Those confessions and accusations in the courtroom? Kiarostami claims to have written the proceedings based on Sabzian’s actual remarks (which is probably true), but in actuality the whole trial was effectively run by the director of the film and passed off as reality; ergo Kiarostami himself is actively deceiving his audience just as Sabzian was to Ahankhahs earlier. Kiarostami intentionally crafts a much more sympathetic, compassionate story of the events than what would have undoubtedly transpired without his creative interference. In actuality, the Ahankhah’s wanted Sabzian locked up for his deception, but the director convinced them to go along for the movie, and even the judge of the trial was persuaded to allow the scripted proceedings. As a film made after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the filmmaker is no doubt optimistic about this artistic influence over legal proceedings in this modern judiciary system.

The film also speaks to the social awareness of cinema and the power of empathetic passion in movie-lovers. Throughout the film, the story passes over a wide range of characters and their varying interest levels for cinema relative to the rest of the goings-on of Persian society. On the one extreme, you have Sabzian, Makhalbaf, and Kiarostami himself who view cinema as an art form, and something that speaks to the human condition. You also have the Ahankhah family who know a fair bit about their national cinema and have heard a good deal about filmmakers like Makhalbaf and Karostami, but still haven’t the faintest idea what they look, and are only coerced into overlooking Sabzian’s deception despite his obvious artistic harmlessness once Karostami has his way. Finally, you have a small but significant bit during the arrest sequence where policemen, a journalist, and a cab driver ride to the Ahankhah residence to take Sabzian into custody at the beginning of the film; the latter is asked if he’s familiar with the impersonated subject in question (Makhalbaf), to which he indifferently shrugs and conveys little interest or even awareness of one of his country’s most celebrated filmmakers.

On a technical level, the film garners much of its deceptive charm and thematic prowess from Kiarostami’s skill at mimicking cinema verite styles and tricking his audience into believing what they’re seeing is real and unscripted. He uses a variety of 16mm and 35mm film stocks, as well as customized wide-angle and telephoto lenses to emphasize guerrilla filmmaking aesthetics and the emotional delivery of Sabzian’s confessions. 

close up

The Ahankhah family slowly but surely catch on to Sabzian’s “performance.” But is it truly a devious deception?

In the end, a film like Close-Up is not famous for its truthfulness, but rather for its skill at manipulating reality and forcing us to recognize our own limited grasp of that reality. Kiarostami highlights a fascinating example of identity theft, and his methodology of how he presents that situation causes us to confront what identity, realness, truthfulness, and deception mean. He wraps all of this around a humanist perspective of cinema, how we can all (and probably should) appreciate film to the point where we see ourselves and our reality on-screen. Still, one of the most remarkable attributes of CU is how knowingly untruthful it is. In the real world, filmmakers Kiarostami and Makhalbaf are neither friends nor respected colleagues, but contentious rivals who have detested each other for decades; there is even controversy as to who stumbled upon this story first and who has claims to the inception of this project. To that end, a followup documentary released on the life of Sabzian details the downfalls of artistic obsessions, including cinematic ones. As it stands in the public eye, Close Up is Kiarostami’s baby, and what a gorgeous baby of cinematic reality-bending it is, as well as a testament to the appreciation of cinephilia. Bravo, you deceitful bastards, you.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Karostami’s manipulation of documentary truth and narrative fiction is a work of genius. His ability to structure this pseudo-docufiction project into a cohesive whole baffles the mind at times, and he scripts the perfect deception for the greatest good. Close-Up is a jack-of-all-trades with respect to conventional narrative cinematic techniques and documentary mimicry. Cinematographically speaking, this film is as accomplished as any. Though most of the cast may have been lying through their teeth, every “character” performs well as their real-selves coerced to varying extents by the film’s creative leader. Sabzian is the most captivating and heartfelt of them all.

However… the only thing that’s bad about this film is how incredibly one-sided it is in discussing the effect cinephilia has had on its main subject. See the follow-up documentary, Close-Up Long Shot (1996), for more.


? If we are indeed movie-lovers, then there is a Sabzian in all of us, for both good and ill.

About The Celtic Predator

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