Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Hossain Sabzian, Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Written by: Abbas Kiarostami
Directed by: Abbas Kiarostami
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Farsi with English subtitles
Running Time: 100
Date: 09/01/1990
IMDB

Close-Up (1990)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Holding a Mirror Up to the Movies

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

What makes Abbas Kiarostami one of our greatest living filmmakers? He's capable of making beautiful films, carefully planned and executed, that tell about the human soul. But at the same time, he's able to make quick, slapdash, hurried pictures that tell about the human soul. And they all carry the Kiarostami seal. One of these slapdash titles, Close-Up (1990), is one of Kiarostami's most remarkable movies, and indeed one of the most remarkable of all movies.

Kiarostami had recently completed his successful and acclaimed Where Is the Friend's Home? when he got wind of an unusual story. An Iranian man named Hossain Sabzian had been caught and arrested for impersonating another great Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. At the time Makhmalbaf was well known in his home country for such films as Boycott (1985), The Cyclist (1987) and Marriage of the Blessed (1988); U.S. audiences came to know him later for his films Gabbeh (1996), A Moment of Innocence (1996), The Silence (1998) and Kandahar (2001). Sabzian had been accepting the hospitality of a family in Tehran, promising them that he was going to use them and their house for a new film.

When I first saw Close-Up, I was under the impression that Kiarostami quickly assembled a crew and filmed Sabzian's trial. The sequence is shot with two video cameras, one in Close-Up on Sabzian and the other roving the courtroom and catching the judge, the plaintiffs, and the accused's mother, and it feels absolutely authentic. To bookend the trial, Kiarostami convinced all parties involved to re-enact what happened to them for a film. Finally, he convinced Makhmalbaf himself to meet with Sabzian for an amazing and lovely conclusion. However, we now know that the entire film is staged and re-created, although it uses real people and real events.

In effect, Close-Up cannot be easily labeled; it's a documentary, a docudrama, a drama, and also something entirely new. It gets better. Kiarostami does not stage the events of the story in chronological order. The best way I can describe it is that it's Tarantino-esque. (Quentin Tarantino himself is reportedly a fan of Close-Up.) The movie starts out with a jolly little journalist riding in a cab with two uniformed men in the back seat. He tells the story of the impostor to the cab driver. The men in the back turn out to be police who are going to arrest Sabzian, while the journalist gets the exclusive scoop. But when we arrive, we wait outside with the cab driver while the action goes on inside. It's not until the end of the film that we see the same scene again, but this time from the inside of the house and from Sabzian's point of view.

The more one thinks about Close-Up, the richer it gets. When Kiarostami tries to persuade the judge to let him film the trial, the judge replies, "There's nothing about this case that's interesting enough to film." But this case becomes much more interesting than, say, an ordinary murder trial. Sabzian becomes much more than just a sad character with no life of his own. His story is elevated to the tragic because of its double-twist. He tells the judge that he used to "play at making films" as a youth and that Makhmalbaf's The Cyclist "is my life." (He also takes care, while in the courtroom and in Kiarostami's presence, to mention Kiarostami's 1974 film The Traveler.)

Moreover, Sabzian is accused of manipulating the family and lying to them about making a film about their lives. As we watch, we feel sorry for these folks who were deceived. And yet, there was indeed a film made about their lives, and here it is! What's even more interesting is that the inspiration for the film was Makhmalbaf but it was his colleague Kiarostami that had enough distance and foresight to conceive of the idea for Close-Up. (This is roughly the U.S. equivalent of Martin Scorsese making a film about a Steven Spielberg impostor.)

Though it never received an official U.S. theatrical release, Close-Up is becoming better known in the West as a true masterpiece, and a great work of art. It's slippery and brilliant, and yields different impressions on each viewing. Most movies simply reflect other movies, and some movies try to re-create life, but Close-Up is about that mysterious place where movies and life collide.

Close-Up has been available on DVD since 2002, via Facets, though it was not exactly a pristine transfer. Now the Criterion Collection has done the film justice with an exemplary 2010 Blu-Ray release. The new transfer has some scratches and whatnot, but in high-def and with the uncompressed monaural soundtrack, the effect is as if you're watching an actual projected film on your TV set. The best bonus by far is the inclusion of Kiarostami's great early feature The Traveler, which has never before been available in this country. Other extras include a new, high-def interview with Kiarostami, a commentary track by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, who co-authored a book on Kiarostami, and two documentaries. The only thing missing is Nanni Moretti's wonderful short film, The Opening Day of Close-Up (1996), but despite that, I can't recommend it enough. (Review revised June 23, 2010.)