DVD Review Of Close-Up

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/17/11


  Abbas Kiarostami is one of those ‘name’ foreign directors who is looked to as a god. Close-Up (Nema-Ye Nazdik) is the second film of his that I have seen, and while not flashy, and made on a low budget, it is an excellent film. It is a pseudo-documentary, and not a mockumentary, although it’s been labeled as the latter. Written and directed by Kiarostami between the making of two other higher budgeted films, Close-Up nonetheless shows what pouncing upon something that just happens can do for an artist. Sometimes it’s not the force of creation, but the moment of recognition that defines when a piece of good art is wrought.

  All of the people in the film play themselves, and the tale is putatively and loosely based upon real events, although there is some dispute over the degree to which the initial tale was real, and how it was influenced by Kiarostami’s decision to film some things supposedly in media res and to go back, after the alleged fact, and film things that supposedly occurred before he got involved- and all in under seven weeks from supposedly hearing of the tale, and completing the film. Yet, what is real and what is staged does not matter, nor does the percentage of what is real and staged matter, because what finally ends up onscreen is compelling enough, and gives some incredible insight into universal human nature, and the specifics of the Iranian justice system.

  The film’s narrative is about a man, a wannabe artist named Hossain Sabzian, who impersonates a real life filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Cyclist (1987), Gabbeh (1996), A Moment Of Innocence (1996)), and tries to con a well to do family. He is caught, put on trial for fraud, but in the course of the film it is revealed he was not a crook, out to rob them, but a deeply disturbed and lonely man, an unemployed loser, who simply got off on being fawned over by the rich folk. In a sense, they were as responsible as he was for the whole episode. In another sense, Sabzian put me in mind of another pathetic loser, from the documentary The Mayor Of Sunset Strip, Rodney Bingenheimer. Sabzian, however, is a bit more complex, even if his station in life, sociopolitically, is lower than Bingenheimer’s. Eventually, after a few flashbacks, but mostly monologues in the courtroom, which rapt a viewer in a way few films since Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre can do, the family withdraws their complaint and pardons Sabzian, believing that he was, indeed, just a deluded and pathetic soul- not a con man.

  The coda of the film shows Sabzian and the real life filmmaker, Makhmalbaf, going to the family’s home and commiserating with hem, as well as showing that Sabzian is a changed man, as he contritely weeps and begs forgiveness from all involved. Whether or not his change is true is debatable, but it seems likely. That the Iranian court system was so lenient is quite surprising, given all we get to hear of it in the West. Also, its looser, less adversarial system seems more productive at resolving disputes than ours, especially in petty cases. We might learn a thing or two, even if it likely is not as good nor fair at resolving deeper, more violent criminal cases.

  The film aptly plays upon its ‘looseness’ between genres and with facts. What is ‘real’ or not is not as important as what is enlightening, and perhaps the most enlightening thing the film indicts is how vain and shallow the rich folk whom he gulls are. They are, in every sense, as shallow as typical Americans. And the fact that they, unlike Sabzian, never seem to be acting, makes the indictment against their failings even more damning than that against Sabzian. Of course, Sabzian has a dim, if trite, realization of this, when he moans, to the effect, ‘We are the slaves of a mask hiding our true face. If we free ourselves from this, the beauty of truth will be ours.’

  Oddly, although this film was made almost two decades ago, there is an odd feeling one gets while watching Sabzuian, for he looks very much like Iran’s current wacko President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, although he is antipodal from that man in nature and demeanor. Not that this was apparent at the time, wgen Sabzian had his moment in the sun, and the President was a nobody, but it emphasizes just how human a character Sabzian is. Sabzian, incidentally, is easily the best ‘actor’ in the film; the others (especially the rich family members, seem amateurs, which adds to the ‘realism’ as well as highlighting the dissonance between the real and near real. Closeup occupies an odd spot in a pantheon of films that includes the whole of Michael Moore’s quasi-documentaries, as well as Orson Welles’ brilliant F For Fake. Yet, this film feels ‘realer,’ and all the credit must go to Kiarostami for, technically, the film is shot very simply and plainly- no fancy shots nor editing by cinematographer Ali Reza Zarrin-Dast. Just the facts, and its what Kiarostami includes and excludes that makes this film, rather than breaks it. And, in a case of what may be ‘poetic justice,’ the film worshipping Sabzian actually does become the star of his own film- not one he made- as he dreamt of doing, but one which was made about him and his dream’s destruction.

  The Facets Video DVD of the film does not match up, qualitatively, with the film- there are scratches, blemishes, and a washed out look to the film. The sound is also not the best quality, and that is mindful of several scenes where Kiarostami deliberately lets the sound be lost, for effect. The film comes with English subtitles, but no English language dubbing. This is the rare foreign film that can be forgiven that flaw, however, given its documentary-like nature. The DVD’s extra features include filmographies of the two filmmakers, plus a brief interview with Kiarostami. There is no film commentary track, although this is the sort of work that a great one could have been crafted from, especially by someone like film critic Roger Ebert. Although the DVD cover lists the film at 100 minutes in length, in reality the film is only 93 minutes long.

  Ultimately, the film plays out like one of those old nested folk dolls within a folk doll, within a folk doll, etc. in that films led to a real life situation which led to another real life experience which led to a film. It is not quite a great film, but far closer to it than one might conceive such a bare bones film, with such a simple premise, could archive. And all the credit for this must go to Kiarostami- a man whose art clearly is a synergy of lesser things. It will be interesting to see just how high his work can reach, if he was just able to get a bit more to work with. Close-Up is a film any lover of cinema should see, and even those who are vapid, because Hossain Sabzian is likely the best mirror those sorts will ever get.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Alternative Film Guide website.]


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