Close-Up: Role Playing for Abbas Kiarostami

[parts of this were originally published in the Seattle Weekly, February 24, 1999]

In 1989 in Tehran, a movie mad unemployed printer named Ali Sabzian was arrested for impersonating the famous film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The family he had fooled was deep in rehearsals for his next “film” when they alerted authorities of their suspicions. “I loved playing that part,” confesses Sabzian in his trial. When the judge asks the Ahankah family if they will drop the charges in light of Sabzian’s apologies and explanations, one of the sons replies “I get the impression he’s still playing a role.”

Ali Sabzian in Close-Up
Ali Sabzian in "Close-Up"

These moments from the documented trial resonate through Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami’s 1989 film of the event. Kairostami, best known to American audiences for Through the Olive Trees and the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or winning A Taste of Cherry, read about the story in the papers and convinced Sabzian and the Ahankah family to play themselves in a dramatic recreation. The case itself is hardly sensationalistic. Sabzian met Mrs. Ahankah on a bus and passed himself off as Makhmalbaf (the scene is recreated by the participants in the middle of the film and establishes an unusual bond between the two—when the police come to arrest him in a later recreation she steps up to stop them). It’s simple bit of role playing that Sabzian pushes into an elaborate charade when he proposes that the family act in his next film and becomes a frequent visitor to their house. Intercut with these extended scenes is the documentary record of the real trial (which Kiarostami convinced the judge to let him not only film but in some ways shape for the camera) and a series of on-camera interviews. What emerges isn’t so much a merging of the two forms as an inquiry into the very nature of cinematic representation.

The family suspects Sabzian of casing the house for heist and looking for “investment dollars” for his film (“I really would have shot the film if I had the money,” offers Sabzian in his defense), but the monetary terms their actual loss is limited to a loan of 2,000 tomans. The real damage has been one of trust, of intimacy: Sabzian so insinuated himself with the family that when the police come to take him away Mrs. Ahankah attempts to stop them. In interviews with Kiarostami the sons feel the betrayal while the father plays it cool, insisting to the camera that he was always suspicious. But you have to wonder—is he too now playing a part, that of the in control patriarch, while his sons take up the mantle of outraged victim?

Kiarostami pushes and pulls at our relationship to the screen story. He opens the film with an almost laughably bald bit of exposition as journalist Hossain Farazmand (the reporter who broke the story, playing himself in the recreation) explains the story to a pair of policeman on their way to arrest Sabzian. As the police go in to make the arrest, the camera remains outside the gates of the house with the driver, finding a quiet drama in the waiting: chatting with the cops, plucking flowers from a pile of leaves in the street, kicking an aerosol can down the street, where Kairostami watches it roll and roll and roll down the hill. None of these details are necessary to the central story but they add up to some of the most memorable moments of the film. When the reporter reemerges (after a desperate search for a portable tape recorder) he gives that aerosol can a triumphant kick to end the scene.

Much of Kiarostami’s cinema—of Iranian cinema [in this era] as a whole, in fact—explores the relationship between spectator and screen and the nature of cinematic representation. In Close-Up we see these ideas in the forefront (years before similar approaches in films as Mohsem Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence, 1996, and his daughter Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, 1998). On the surface is the story itself, which played out in three arenas: the recreations (a mix of scripted drama and improvisation), the on-camera interviews, and the court footage. Even taking away my own skepticism (after a few years of Iranian cinema, I no longer readily accept anything as “real,” at least in the documentary recording sense, anymore), what we’re seeing is not layers of reality but performance; what comes across most strongly is not the gap between dramatic recreation and documented “news,” but how in every venue the players put on their public faces for the camera, for the judge, for their fellow participants.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Ali Sabzian
Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Ali Sabzian

Kiarostami is no judge; he’s not after guilt or innocence, but people in all their complexity, and he investigates with love. In the latter half of the film Kairostami replays the arrest scene from inside the house. Sabzian, who has never made a film, pours out his passion for cinema in long philosophical pronouncements on art and truth. The multiplicity of screens between performer and event is astounding: the real life con man, who escapes his lack of self esteem by play acting the part of a great artist, now plays himself playing that part in a dramatic recreation where, for those moments, he becomes a filmmaker in his own right. Is this expression any less real than the documentary footage of the trial? If he is, as the son insists, “still playing a part” in the courtroom, is this in fact more real? Or is it simply just another hidden facet of the man, the truth pulled out of a multitude of fictions.

By the end of Close-Up the seeming simplicity of technique has given way to a remarkable complexity, like a Renoirian take on Citizen Kane where the truth is not found under the masks but in their fusion. In the final scenes, a brilliant mix of contrivance, intimacy, distance, and dramatic closure peered into like a voyeur, questions of performance and spontaneous action are tossed to the wind in a moment of emotional power. Maybe we are all actors on a stage, but that doesn’t make our performance any less poignant. Or real.

The film has previously been available on DVD through Facets. Criterion has remastered the film from a new 35mm print and done their usual clean-up of surface grit and scratched for both DVD (two discs) and Blu-ray (single disc). The commentary by Kiarostami scholars Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum is different than the usual scholarly track, which are generally carefully prepared audio essays scripted to the image track. Saeed-Vafa and Rosenbaum have obviously prepared but appear to go to it unscripted, taking scenes and details as they come and offering their perspectives in a give-and-take. Also features the 1996 documentary “Close-Up Long Shot” (following up on the real-life Ali Sabzian), the interview featurette “A Walk with Kiarostami” (conducted in 2001 by Iranian film professor Jamsheed Akrami while Kiarostami was in Edinburgh) and a new interview with Kiarostami conducted for this disc.

At one point in Close-Up, Sabzian says “I am the child from the film The Traveler who is left behind.” He’s referring to a 1974 film by Kiarostami, which makes its American home video debut in this release. The film, about a football-mad schoolboy, Qassem, who breaks every rule to get the money to see his favorite team, Persepolis, play at the stadium far away in Tehran, has more in common with his films about children (from Where Is The Friend’s Home? to the documentary short Homework) than Close-Up but it shows the artist first mastering his art (according to the introduction on the disc, Kiarostami considers it his first authentic feature). The boy is not just willful, he’s an ingenious scoundrel who schemes excuses to skip classes and avoid homework and turns thief, con-man and liar to get the money for his city journey. Whether or not Kiarostami like or dislikes Qassem (who drags his best friend into his shenanigans and then leaves him behind as he heads off to Tehran), he does have a grudging respect for the boy’s commitment. As Dad seems barely aware of Qassem and unconcerned with his son’s failing grades and misbehavior, the desperate mother turns to the principal to complain about Qassem’s thieving and (after getting an earful from the principal) gives him permission to discipline the boy. Qassem endures a mighty caning from his principal without confessing is sins, which by now include stealing money from his mother.

It’s classic Kiarostami—a simple story of a journey by a schoolkid—in primordial form. His storytelling is more conventional, leaning on basic editing conventions (like shot-reaction shot patterns during conversations) that he would discard as he developed his long-take aesthetic, but his camera is already probing the anxieties, desires and determined natures of kids by making a study of their faces and their body language. He resorts to dream imagery to illustrate the boy’s guilty conscience (or maybe just his dawning realization the scope of his transgressions and anticipation of the punishments to come), but the final images are far more haunting, evocative and anxious and Kiarostami doesn’t offer the comfort of closure or even steps in that direction. The print is decidedly low-fidelity, a 16mm production where the splices are at times visible, and the digital reproduction (while nowhere as painstakingly mastered and cleaned up as Close-Up) appears to be an accurate record of the original film.

Available on DVD and Blu-ray from Criterion on June 22:
Close-Up (DVD)
Close-Up [Blu-ray]


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