Close-Up’s (1990) story is almost literally “ripped from the headlines,” telling the real-life tale of a young working-class man named Hossein Sabzian who had impersonated legendary Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf in order to insinuate himself into the lives of the Ahankhahs, a middle-class family living in Northern Tehran. Though Sabzian did “borrow” a small amount of money from the Ahankhahs, his motive seemed to be more complicated than that. Because all the characters in the story are played by themselves (Sabzian, the Ahankhah family, Kiarostami, and even the real Makhmalbaf), it has been common to address the film as a hybrid work, combining elements of documentary and fiction, though this does not perhaps go far enough in doing credit to the full scope of Kiarostami’s metacinematic exercise, the foundation of which is an effort to consider fabrication, artifice, film language, and the very possibility of a morally justifiable lie.
Close-Up is a film about what the cinema might be and what it might be able to do (not all of it necessarily for the greater good).Though most of the film consists of staged scenes or “reenactments,” Kiarostami complicated matters further by insinuating himself and his small crew into Sabzian’s actual criminal trial, turning it into something of a circus and almost certainly affecting considerably that which was only supposed to be documented.
If Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s House? (1987) was the first of his films to receive broad international recognition, 1990’s Close-Up brought both the director and post-revolutionary Iranian cinema to prominence on the world stage. Godfrey Cheshire wrote that the seismic impact of the films was due to “formal sophistication and philosophical complexity, coming from an authoritarian theocracy,” integrated into a work of cinematic art that was “more inventive than what was issuing from Europe and the United States at the time.”
If the collaborative ethnofictions of French filmmaker-anthropologist Jean Rouch may be one precedent for Close-Up, another might be F for Fake (1973), Orson Welles’s playful hybrid film about magic, forgery, and misdirection. The opening sequence of Close-Up is a perfect case study in what makes the film so formally sophisticated and philosophically complex, culminating as it does in a central event which occurs entirely offscreen, the camera remaining out on the street and opting to focus on flowers retrieved by a taxi driver from a pile of trash and an aerosol can rolling around in the street. In the opinion of Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, this opening sequence constitutes “a microcosm of the Kiarostami universe, contains the very essence of his cinema.”
-Written by Jason Wierzba