Close-Up (1990)

Close-Up is one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen and yet I’m not entirely sure what to think about it. It’s a tangled mess of truth and deception, illusion and reality. At times, the film is surprisingly frank, while other moments it appears intentionally deceptive, caught between its documentary style and it’s story of fraud.

Hossain Sabzian is an unremarkable, poor man who passes himself off as the famous director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. As the film opens, he is being arrested for fraud after the Ahankhah family lends him some money. As the film develops and his trial takes place, his intentions become muddled, unclear and his reasoning seems esoteric, at times, almost delusional.

From the onset, Hossain Sabzian is caught in a position that demands him to take on another role when certain people, mainly the Ahankhah family, are watching him. Later in the film, he is accused by the Ahankhah son of still playing a role, still acting, but this time for different reasons and for a different audience. And for all the audience knows, there might be some truth to that.

It also adds the idea that the director must also be an actor, that his art must not simply be that on the screen, but the very fabric of his life. Looking back to the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles, the idea of the director as a persona is clear, that the man must be more than just the voice behind the camera, but an act himself in order to draw and entice people into his art.

For the film has added in yet another layer to the proceedings. The entire film is captured by a group of documentary filmmakers who take interest in the case due to its ties to film. The film’s awareness of the camera creates situations where it’s clear people behave and act differently because of the presence of the camera, and there are strong undertones that Sabzian is acting for the camera.

In Close-Up, the camera is not a passive observer, but an active agent that hues and shapes the direction of things. There’s a scene in which the judge of Sabzian’s case is asked to consider letting the crew film the proceedings, even as they film the judge. The presence of the camera becomes a stand-in for another character, for it’s the presence of the camera that persuades the judge to agree.

What makes all this even more fascinating and compelling is that these are real events that actually happened to the people involved. Is this a documentary? The trouble comes in the fact that large chunks of this film, particularly a series of flashbacks that occur during the court scene, are reenactments, set up and fabricated according to the accounts of those who were there. Can these reenactments be accepted as true?

The Ahankhah family all wants to express that they weren’t duped, that Sabzian hadn’t strung them along. Therefore, the reenactments end up casting them as being in the know, yet the arrest many months later suggests that they were completely taken in by this stranger and his claims to be Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

And this becomes yet another complication of documenting real life on film: to what extent can the subjects of the film be trusted to be honest? Can the audience even take anything Hossain Sabzian to be true if his entire time before was spent in deception? Or, even more fundamentally, can the audience trust the people filming these events?

The film is parsed together in a particular way, first aligns the audience with a reporter and then subtly aligns them with Savzian as the film moves on, suggesting an unspoken allegiance of the filmmakers. Furthermore, one of the last sequences of the film is plagued by an equipment failure, giving the audience only fragments and bits of the conversation, leaving out what could be the most important parts of the exchange.

This becomes the problem every documentary faces: the problem of exclusion. What parts are left out and how will that affect the film? At little over ninety minutes, Close-Up is certainly on the side of brief and for such an unusual case, it’s likely there was much more to be explored there. And yet, the film doesn’t seem interested in being a document of event.

What it is instead perplexes me to no end. What is director Abbas Kiarostami’s intention? Is he trying to suggest that all truth in film must be derived under some pretense of dishonesty? Is the filmmaker misunderstood or an abuser of power? Should film be objective and distant or subjective and intimate with its subject? Close-Up seems to be all of these things at different points, which demands a rewatch in order to begin to dig into all its inner workings.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing