On Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990)


by Jacqueline Valencia


Cinema has an interesting effect on the mind as it distorts reality for a viewer. The only real truth in watching film is that you are watching it on a screen and as a viewer, you are apart from it. The emotions and thoughts a film invokes are a strange sort of chemistry that forms between the individual will of the filmmaker and the mystery of a viewer’s interpretation. That viewer interpretation is based on experience, an untouchable history belonging solely to the viewer. It is up to the director of a film to connect their story with their audience.

In the case of Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami‘s Close-Up there are various things happening that make the film both a connector built on meta analogies and also a real life slice of life creating fiction out of a reality.   Hossain Sabzian is just some guy who really loves film, particularly the work of director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He meets Mrs. Ahankhah on a bus and she asks him about his copy of the book The Cyclist, mentioning she is a fan of the Makhmalbaf film adaptation. Sabzian says he is the filmmaker and forms a friendship with the Ahankhah family, going so far as to cast them in a film in their own home. Hossain Farazmand, is called in to verify the imposter and soon after Sabzian is arrested for fraud.

The film is made like a documentary in that it follows the real life Sabzian court case with scenes directly in the courtroom, however, they are interspersed with scenes filmed as reenactments of the actual events with real life people portraying themselves. The scenes in the courtroom are incredibly interesting as they focus on Sabzian’s love of film and the way it denotes a reality far better than what he experiences in his every day. Sabzian is unable to hold a job for very long even though he has a family to support. Somehow he finds opportunities to portray himself as Makhmalbaf. While doing so, he goes on about life and how everything he does is for his art. At one point the judge asks him if it wouldn’t be better for him to portray himself as an actor, since what he does is act when he pretends to be Makhmalbaf. Sabzian says that he’d rather be a director because he garners a greater respect from the people around him and things become easier for him. This little interaction is one of many that digs deep on what it takes to create a film.

Sabzian is merely a viewer and fanatic of film, but when he puts on the shoes of the director, he becomes a creator of worlds. In truth, he builds a fantasy world where he is the centre and around him everything falls into place to form a narrative, it just so happens that that narrative has actual consequences. People were deceived and hurt by that deception in this film. Forgiveness and understanding become key in the conclusion of it, but whether these resolutions were manufactured by the director or not is of little consequence. This is still a film. See the mind bender?

I’m thinking on Iranian school on Illuminationism :

In his Philosophy of Illumination, Suhrawardi argued that light operates at all levels and hierarchies of reality (PI, 97.7–98.11). Light produces immaterial and substantial lights, including immaterial intellects (angels), human and animal souls, and even ‘dusky substances’, such as bodies.

The idea that divine aids every person’s thoughts can be said also of the director. If one places the filmmaker in the shoes of “God,” then they assist in everyone’s decisions in the film. Place Sabzian in the place of the director and he has not just impersonated Makhmalbaf, he has created a world where everyone believes he is Makhmalbaf. Sabzian is aiding the illusion that he has the ability to make films.

If one pans further back, Kiarostami, in abandoning work just because he was so interested in this case, and in making scenes within recreations of scenes based on realities AND creating from other realities, the audience is treated to the grand labyrinth in filmmaking: the idea that the film dwells exclusively in a viewer’s perspective. Sabzian is remorseful for deceiving the family, yet he is so used to passing himself off as Makhmalbaf that he speaks like a director when trying to defend himself. When the eldest son of the Ahankhah family tells the judge that he strongly suspects Sabzian was deceiving them in order to burglarize their home and can’t forgive him, Sabzian responds, “Spite is a veil to conceal art.” Sabzian believes his impersonating Makhmalbaf is a way for him to create and be part of the artworld he so desperately wants to be a part of.

Kiarostami’s style here is basic, but stylized to show a different form of cinéma vérité, where the audience knows the deception, but still questions where the truth starts and the lies end. Not only that, but the audience is left to wonder what lesson is to be learned in the Sabzian’s journey up until he tearily meets Makhmalbaf himself. If one goes back to the idea of light as divine, and watch the film, one notices it all filmed with natural light. The windows in the courtroom are high up with the sunlight hitting the subjects from the heavens. The director/god exposes or shines a light on their subject to reveal, or even aid, in revealing motivation, intent, and truths.

While the film opens with a Kiarostami constraint of conversations within a moving car or taxi, this is also where the semi-fictional confessional part of the film begins. The reporter is excited about the story and the driver has no choice, but to listen to it. The driver becomes the voice piece for the audience, asking the reporter and the police in the back, their background stories, thereby constructing the framework and setting for the audience. This is all before we are even introduced to Sabzian. Movie intercepts real life as soon as the driver leaves the film, but somehow that introduction becomes the critical handoff to the audience. It’s as if Kiarostami, through the driver, is saying, “Hey, here’s something I heard about in the news. What do you think?” and then leaves. The audience feels like they’re in control of their interpretations of the events throughout the film, but are they?

It’s Sabzian’s face at the end that offers a subtle clue. Well, only if you can guess if he’s acting or not.





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