Abbas Kiarostami's greatest film is also, deceptively contrary to his usually poetic style, his most intellectual. The story of a real-life incident involving a con artist who posed as a noted Iranian director to receive meals and lodging from a family, Close-Up undercuts the usual eye-rolling accompanied by the phrase "based on a true story" by actually hiring all the parties involved to play themselves. Combining documentary footage of the criminal's trial and re-enactments, no aspect of the film is entirely true, changed by the presence of the camera or the director's deliberate staging.
Thus, it is this film, more so than the movie that prompted this comment (Ten), that could drive Roger Ebert to dismiss Kiarostami with this insult: "The fatal flaw in his approach is that no ordinary moviegoer, whether Iranian or American, can be expected to relate to his films. They exist for film festivals, film critics and film classes." I do dearly love Mr. Ebert, populist contrarian that he can be, but I cannot fathom what would make him say such a ridiculous statement. Kiarostami makes slow films, no doubt about it. But his characters, as many levels as they operate on, are never allegorical, never a symbol more than flesh and blood. Tedious as parts of Taste of Cherry can be, who could say that its suicidal protagonist is not affecting? Who could watch the documentarian in The Wind Will Carry Us debate his morality over whether or not to linger over an old woman just so he can film her funeral and only focus on the fact that the protagonist and the director are both...directors?
That's the beauty of Close-Up: its title communicates the cheeky falsity of the self-reflexivity, breaking the verité by using the most unnatural of framing and proximity to emphasize a person. But it also suggests Kiarostami's humanism, a focus on each person relevant to the story, and a number who aren't, each with his own yarn to spin. Close-Up has enough intellectual layers to power several Charlie Kaufman movies, but its underlying heart and love of art eclipses the American genius even as his most inspired.
Close-Up opens with a re-enactment as Farazmand, a journalist, traveling to see his friends in the Ahankhah family, who have hosted a man they believe to be the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Having become suspicious of the man, the family calls for the journalist to come and see whether the man really is who he claims. But Kiarostami immediately changes up the typical idea of a re-enactment by focusing on people and moments irrelevant to the story of the con artist's fraud. We listen to the journalist excitedly considering how his career will receive a boost, so consumed with visions of international recognition that he appears totally unprepared to actually do his job; he must ask for directions to his friend's house -- a reference to Kiarostami's Where Is My Friend's House? and a common refrain in his work (and supposedly a pragmatic necessity in the labyrinthine structure of Tehran) -- and ask the conned family for cab fare when he arrives. Furthermore, he forgot to bring a tape recorder, one of the first things a journalist should have thought to bring. Kiarostami even spends a minute watching the cab driver, someone with no bearing on the story, sendan aerosol can down the street after he digs some flowers out of a rubbish heap, referencing Kiarostami's first film and also making most clear the director's lack of concern for simply telling a story.
"I don't have time for movies," the cabbie explains to the journalist. "I'm too busy with real life!" Yet this is a real-life case that directly involves the cinema: Hossein Sabzian, the man who posed as Makhmalbaf, did so out of his obsession with the director's work. As we see in another re-enactment shown later, during Sabzian's trial, Sabzian began his ruse while riding a bus. Spotting a woman reading the script of Makhmalbaf's film, The Cyclist, Sabzian claims that he wrote it, not seeking to get money from her but just jumping into the moment. She asks why he would ride the bus, that she thought directors drove around in their own cars, but Sabzian says that he gets ideas for his films by taking public transportation. The moment cheekily applies to Kiarostami's own work, which so often feature shots of characters driving around, and it also charms the woman enough that she invites the "director" to come to her home to meet her children, who are fans of his work.
These scenes break up the trial, shot in a documentary fashion but also containing hints of fictive filmmaking. The first shot of the trial opens with a clapboard, implying that multiple takes were shot. We get a glimpse of the complexity of Iranian life, as opposed to the unified perception of the country's citizens as fervent participants of the government's fascist theocracy, when the judge overseeing the case, turbaned and bearded, allows Kiarostami to film the trial. His presence unquestionably affects the proceeding, and Kiarostami subtly but marked shifts attention of the trial onto the aspects of the case most pertinent to the cinema.
That is not to say that he paints Sabzian as the hero at the expense of the family who supported him. Rather, he spends time on each character, to the point that he lets interviews drift off intentionally to touch upon larger issues: Mehrdad, the youngest son of the Ahankhah family and the most dedicated cinephile, is also the most outraged over the deception -- in Sabzian's metaphysical fulfillment of his own movie obsession, he taints Mehrdad's own. But his anger has other roots, expressed when he suddenly jumps onto the subject of the lack of work opportunities and his dissatisfaction with being unable to make his own life with a steady job that could earn him his own home. Kiarostami clearly got him off on this subject, but he does not press it to make a didactic point, merely bringing out other issues weighing on the "character's" mind to flesh him out.
Mehrdad even acknowledges poor social conditions that might have driven Sabzian to his fraud when the judge asks the plaintiffs if they would pardon him, a fascinating insight into the Iranian judicial process. As much as law enforcement might be strict, the courtroom we see in Close-Up is less imposing than an American one. There are no lawyers (cue bad jokes), few present not relevant to the case rather than invite people to gossip, and the plaintiffs and defendants make their cases themselves. A pardon from the aggrieved would not free Sabzian, but it would reduce his sentence. The entire construction of the legal system, as surely as it could easily be twisted to maintain rule of the upper classes, takes on a beauty when two parties of similar class argue against each other. The family admired "Makhmalbaf" in the first place because they liked his working class ethos (Mehrdad even said he liked that a director could be "down-to-earth enough" to ask for money from an ordinary person), and their ability to speak frankly without filtration through lawyers allows them to work out their issues as a sort of group therapy in which all parties are equal.
But the greatest draw of Close-Up is Sabzian himself. Kiarostami builds him into a poor man who finds his escape through art. When Kiarostami visits his holding cell before the trial, Sabzian mentions that he's a fan of the director and even, perhaps under the impression that the artistic community know and support each other, asks that Kiarostami tell the real Makhmalbaf that "The Cyclist is a part of me."During the trial, he even compares himself to the protagonist of The Traveler, Kiarostami's first full-length feature. Not rich enough to make his own movies, he instead finds an outlet to express his love of art and his desire to create by pretending to be a director. Sabzian explains that he kept his ruse going not to steal from these people but because he enjoyed the feeling of mattering and, we can infer, the feeling of seeing someone like Mehrdad look to him the same way Sabzian himself looks to the real Makhmalbaf. He thus could not bring himself to tell them the truth because it would shatter that illusion.
Makhmalbaf, a religious terrorist in the shah's Iran, was freed from prison after the revolution in 1979, only to come to resent the crackdown on art and culture and make numerous films about the plight of the poor in Iran and neighboring countries and to focus upon the arts and literature to keep them alive in his homeland. That appealed to Sabzian, whose life of poverty and his love of art made him empathize greatly with the artist, and as much of an ego trip as he may have been on, Sabzian may well have made the film he sold the family on if they still believed in him. Kiarostami, who is allowed to ask him questions during the trial, wonders aloud if this experience has proven that Sabzian is better suited to be an actor than a director, and the fraud acknowledges that he has considered this as well. He says that he would like to be able to portray his experiences in life on the screen, acting with the same honesty that Makhmalbaf puts in his direction. Kiarostami then asks if that's what he's doing right now, but Sabzian shakes his head and says that he is actually relating his experiences now; the distinction exists only in his head, but he's so enraptured with the cinema that, even when impersonating one of its practitioners, he cannot envision himself as a part of the cinema.
But he certainly became one when Close-Up effectively broke Iranian cinema to international audiences. Mehrdad complains at one point that Sabzian is playing a role in the courtroom as much as he was in the Ahankhah household. He's right, but the same is true of Mehrdad himself, and the judge and everyone else involved. The judge does not particularly want to condemn the man for his minor transgression, and he appeals for the family to forgive the man by bridging their mutual love of cinema. It's a sentiment coaxed by Kiarostami; in the first interview clip with the elders of the Ahankhah family, the father says that everyone who has come to them about the story has manipulated them in some way, such as the journalist playing up the fact that they were fooled -- which is clearly the main source of their outrage over the negligible monetary loss. Eventually, they would come to see Kiarostami in the same light, arguing that he pushed them against their wishes of conviction to forgive Sabzian, who himself felt that he'd been tricked and even complained to a judge afterward despite benefiting from the deceit.
But it is this appeal to art that makes Close-Up so memorable. By peeling back layers of self-reflexivity, reality and fiction without exposing a clear foundation, Kiarostami manages to intellectualize the emotional draw of art. Or perhaps it's the opposite, dragging film studies back to the reason they cropped up in the first place: because some people loved movies so much they sought to learn everything about them. With its daring and wholly unique mash-up of Herzogian semi-documentary and open fiction, Close-Up finds the middle ground between the heady reflexivity of Adaptation and Persona and the more jubilant odes to film like The Purple Rose of Cairo. Like Woody Allen's film, Close-Up details the power of cinema at its most pure, when people are in most desperate need for it: Purple Rose highlights the necessity of escapism during the Great Depression, while Close-Up shows us a world where art can free people from the oppressions laid upon them not by distracting them but allowing them to see their position clearly in the neorealist tradition of Iranian cinema. Kiarostami would return more to that style in the wake of this film, but his fracturing of reality allows him to see it in greater clarity than ever before, or since.
Crystallizing the director's attempt to capture cinephilia in humanistic terms is the ending, in which he monitors Sabzian meeting his idol, Makhmalbaf, and returning to the Ahankhah home. Kiarostami places a microphone on Sabzian so he can hear the exchange as the film crew follows in a van, but the mike's audio goes awry, dropping out and returning for a few seconds at a time. As with everything else in the film, this moment contains truth -- the idea that Kiarostami only had one take to capture Sabzian meeting his hero -- and fiction, in that many of the mike drops were added in post-production. But the gaps in sound are appropriate: there's a respectful quality to them, emphasizing the personal nature of something as grand as film. To listen in on such a pure moment would be unclean. I'm reminded of one of the emotional high points of the original Office, where Tim throws off his microphone and takes Dawn into another room to tell her he loves her, not allowing others to hear what means most to him because some things are not the business of prying eyes. When the two arrive at the family's house at the end, the father welcomes the real director and Sabzian, and Kiarostami freezes on the image of the fraud, smiling softly but genuinely as he appears to be forgiven, having been imprisoned and subsequently set free through the power of art. Few images are as memorable.