With the possible exception of the other films of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiariostami (with whom I am not familiar), you’re not likely to find anything much like Close Up, his 1990 offering. Apparently Kiarostami’s movies often take this same idiosyncratic approach: They’re documentary in nature, but not in execution — or at least not wholly. Kiarostami takes a situation and examines it in a very untraditional manner by mixing interviews, actual documentary footage and dramatic recreations of the events using the real people involved. The results are frankly like nothing I’ve ever seen — and that’s saying something.
I’m guessing that this particular story may have a greater personal resonance for the director, because it deals with art, film, fame and the desire to be a part of that world — and in a way that possibly only another artist could understand. The situation involves a man named Hossain Sabzian, a fellow so obsessed with art and film that when he’s encountered on a bus holding a copy of the screenplay for Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Cyclist, he tells the woman he’s talking to that he is Makhmalbaf. From there, his impersonation of the filmmaker takes over.
Close-up is not linear in construction; the sequence I just described occurs at about the midway point. The film begins with a journalist (Hossain Farazmand) attending the arrest of Sabzian, in hopes of a good story. It’s this story that leads Kiarostami to undertake his film, which ultimately becomes the story of why Sabzian would pretend to be this filmmaker. The first hint comes when Sabzian tells Kiarostami (during an interview in prison) to tell Makhmalbaf that The Cyclist is a part of him.
If the answer is fairly obvious, the emotions are not so much so — nor is the fact that in making this film Kiarostami has actually given Sabzian, however briefly, some of the legitimacy he desires.
Close Up is compelling and utterly fascinating, but be warned: This is a rough-edged film that constantly shoves the viewer’s face into the fact that it is a film. The sound is substandard. The camerawork is never more than perfunctory (at one point the equipment actually fails and the filmmaker just makes do with what does work). Much that we see is beside the point, but those things help to create a whole that makes you realize there’s a larger canvas being used than it might seem.
If you’re in the mood for something very out of the ordinary, this is it.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke