Possibly one of the most fascinating films of Abbas Kiarostami’s career (to say nothing of its contribution to Iranian cinema), 1990’s Close-Up is a masterful exploration of identity, filmmaking, and the fuzzy distinctions that are often made between fiction and documentary films. Existing somewhere between those two film genres, Close-Up follows the events surrounding the actual trial of Hossein Sabzian, who is brought up on charges of impersonating the famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami, in his use of the real figures involved in the case in scripted scenes (re-enacting the real events that occurred) manages to combine re-enactment with real documentary footage and strict narrative filmmaking. This creates a unique blend of film styles that leaves an indelible impact on the viewer, and creates a whole new genre of filmmaking in the process.
The basis of the story of Close-Up provides the core of its vibrant sense of realism. In 1989, Kiarostami abandoned the film he was making at the time to follow the story of Hossein Sabzian, a poor man who impersonated Makhmalbaf in order to curry favor with a middle-class family in Tehran (Cheshire). The entire exercise went on for weeks, in which he courted the family for a role in ‘Makhmalbaf’’s next movie, until they finally became suspicious and called the police on him. A huge media story at the time, Close-Up’s filmmaking crystallizes that on-the-pulse immediacy by following the story in real time, as well as dramatizations set in the past.
In its process, Close-Up becomes something in between fiction and reality, as Kiarostami intersperses the real-life trial footage (which he had to gain permission to film) with dramatized scenes of the events surrounding Sabzian’s deception, with Sabzian and the figures involved playing themselves. While the events actually happened, and they are likely played out as accurately as possible, there is also something that changes in the transition from real-life event to filmed scene. The theatricality that results makes the filmed events seem rehearsed and reenacted, making each of the characters just as guilty of playing a role as Sabzian was of playing his.
Right from the start, Kiarostami’s approach utilizes a special filmic language that is somewhere between gritty docudrama and outright journalism. The opening scene involves a journalist named Farazmand entering a taxi with two soldiers, the reporter then describing to the taxi driver (and the audience, subsequently) the case of Sabzian and his immediate excitement at covering it. Instead of it being the kind of cold, efficient exposition you could get from many films of this type, the taxi driver stops at several points to ask for directions. This subverts the overt elegance of narrative film by capturing the awkwardness and false starts of real life, while also disorienting the audience.
Furthermore, once they get to the house, Kiarostami refuses to follow the reporter and soldiers, instead staying with the taxi driver and following a few minutes of his life. This sequence ends with a spray can rolling down the street at what feels like a snail’s pace, yet another example of Kiarostami’s defiance of conventional, safe and efficient filmmaking. In many ways, the can itself is symbolic of the kind of neo-realism that Kiarostami is going for in Close-up – whether through reality or artifice, he wants to capture the banalities of everyday life, thus making it more understandable for us that Sabzian undergoes this massive deception to feel more important in his own life.
At the heart of the themes of the film is the impact of cinema on people’s lives, whether as a cultural force that changes behavior or an all-seeing eye that alters people’s perception of themselves when they know they are being watched. In many ways, Sabzian in particular is guilty of playing things up for the cameras, launching into poetic speeches about art during his trial and essentially positioning himself narratively as the film’s main subject and hero. As soon as Kiarostami turns on the camera, it appears as though everyone around him, regardless of their status, is enraptured by the possibility of being in a film, their own mannerisms becoming inherently performative. According to Cheshire, in this way Close-up is “neither a documentary nor a drama but a provocative, unconventional merging of the two, a meditation on perplexities of justice, social inequity, and personal identity that also subtly interrogates the processes and purposes of cinema.”
The man at the center of the film, Sabzian, is a fascinating figure, his own internal struggle matching the formalism of the filmmaking. Sabzian is a lover of film who wanted so badly to be a filmmaker that he essentially fooled himself (and others) into actually thinking he was Makhmalbaf. Throughout the film, Sabzian is shown saying that he was incredibly inspired by Makhmalbaf, as he “spoke for [him] and depicted [his] suffering” (Lim). Kiarostami’s portrait of Sabzian is somewhat sympathetic, the filmmaking painting him as a lost soul looking to film for inspiration and identity – says Sabzian, “I’ve never seen my life in focusit’s always been a blurred image” (Lim). This is apt, as the titular ‘close-up’ in the title could very well refer to the grainy tight shots of Sabzian’s open, expressive face during the trial proceedings, the camera looking deeply into the man just as the judge and onlookers do during the case, but never really getting a sharp, clear look at him. For Sabzian, that fantasy was reality; Close-Up’s dedication to blurring the lines between truth and fiction follows Sabzian’s ethos very closely, leaving the audience, like the people around Sabzian, to wonder just who and what he and the film itself want to be. The true answer, of course, is somewhere in between, and this ambiguity is where Close-Up truly shines.
Just as Sabzian’s own search for identity leads him to perform crimes, the very nature of the trial itself is put into question as the audience wonders what crimes, in fact, he committed in the first place. The trial itself speaks to a uniquely interesting element of Iranian culture at the time, indicating a sensitivity towards fraud in culture – post-revolutionary Islamic culture looked to new figures to help cultivate a sense of what it meant to live and exist in the Middle East, and the novelty of cinema was picking up in Iran at the time of Close-up’s production (Cheshire). This singular awe and protectiveness of the art form, as well as Iranian cultural ideals of propriety and honesty, may play into the very publicized and fascinating nature of the case and the trial itself. Kiarostami’s footage of the trial was the first time an Iranian court ever allowed a video camera into court, making it a fascinatingly innovative game-changer for Iranian culture as much as it is a skillful, masterfully-made film (Cheshire).
Sabzian’s emotional journey is encapsulated perfectly in Close-Up with the film’s final scenes, in which he actually gets to meet his hero, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The scene itself takes on an uncanny quality, as the audience sees the mysterious figure at the heart of the case, as well as Sabzian’s emotional response to him. Regardless of the audience’s feelings toward Sabzian – whether he was a con artist, a villain, or someone with deep mental problems – the final meeting of his hero is such a pure expression of love and joy that it is impossible not to relate to him. Even in this scene, Kiarostami calls attention to the film’s own formalism, such as the intentional sound glitches during the motorcycle ride across Tehran that cut out the sound – a move meant to appear accidental, but was instead highly calculated. As the film ends, this choice reminds the audience they are still watching a film, making them still question exactly what parts are real and which are orchestrated for the movie itself.
Close-up, as a piece of cinema, is an extraordinary exploration of both the power of film to change people and the very nature of film itself. The fact that it defies easy categorization into ‘documentary’ or ‘drama’ is central to its appeal and innovation; Kiarostami’s involvement is central to the fate of Sabzian in the film, instead of being a post-hoc exploration of a case the filmmakers only found out about later. Its sense of gritty realism, combined with heartwarming theatricality and sentiment, allows the real-life events at its heart to become strangely uplifted into something you could only see in the movies.
A perfect portrait of the way Iranian culture positioned itself and valued itself after the Iranian Revolution, Close-up features a man that all film lovers can relate to: someone obsessed with the transformative power of film, and wanting to apply it to his own life and that of others. With the help of Kiarostami’s half-dramatic cinematic style, the two artists collaborate not only to bring real life closer to cinema, but to bring cinema closer to real life. On top of that, the film captures the social and cultural milieu of post-revolution Iran in a very immediate and romantic manner, Kiarostami’s dedication to finding the essence of truth even within his own dramatic re-enactments. In this way, Close-up makes the magic of cinema much more approachable, and thus infinitely compelling.
Cheshire, Godfrey. “Close-up: Prison and Escape.” Criterion. June 22, 2010. Blu-ray release.
Lim, Dennis. “A Second Look: Abbas Kiarostami’s ‘Close-up’”. Los Angeles Times. June 9,