Criterion // 1990 // 98 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roy Hrab (Retired) // June 22nd, 2010
"I took a look at this case and I don't see anything worth filming."
Is it art imitating life, or life imitating art? Is it something in between? Neither? It's hard to pin down what exactly is going on in the somewhat surreal Close-Up, filmed by acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (Taste Of Cherry), and released in a 2-disc set by Criterion. It is captivating viewing to be sure. However, following reflection and revelations regarding the production, there are troubling aspects regarding the motives and ultimate consequences of the film that give one reason to pause and reassess what has been presented.
Close-Up is the true story of Hossain Sabzian, a poor, underemployed, divorced, father of two. He is obsessed with the cinema. In 1989, Sabzian convinced the Ahankhah family that he was Iranian filmmaker Moshen Makhmalbaf (The Silence) and that he would cast them in his next film. Eventually, the family caught on to the ruse and contacted the authorities, leading to Sabzian's arrest. A journalist wrote a column about the incident that was read by Kiarostami. The director quickly put together a crew and set about to film the trial as well as restage some of the events. The re-enactments were done with a twist: Sabzian, the Ahankhahs, and the others involved played themselves.
The centerpiece of Close-Up is Sabzian's "trial" and his "reasons" for impersonating Makhmalbaf. The trial is real; Kiarostami received permission from the cleric judge to film the trial. The problem is these events were not passively filmed and not all is what it seems. Sabzian's speeches were scripted by Kiarostami (supposedly based on what Sabzian's had told him). Further, unlike a Western trial, Kiarostami had the ability to ask Sabzian questions during the trial to draw out these scripted answers. That is to say, the filmmaker had direct influence on the "real" events being filmed. There is no clear line between reality and fiction.
Many critics have gone into raptures over Kiarostami's blending of fact and invention, arguing that the film is a masterpiece of illustrating the power of cinema and art in society. There is a great deal of truth to this argument and there is a fascinating dynamic going on between Sabzian, the Ahankhahs, Kiarostami, and, ultimately, the real Makhmalbaf. It is not by sheer coincidence that Sabzian and the Ahankhahs were drawn together via their admiration of film. In post-revolutionary Iran, cinema offers an escape from a relatively oppressive regime. Interestingly, Kiarostami was able to exploit the trial to make this point by actively intervening and influencing the events being filmed. This adds another layer to the film that is particularly relevant in today's age of celebrity in that Close-Up appears to be a precursor of reality television shows, where people "play" themselves to get their 15 minutes of fame.
There is also the bizarre twist that everything Sabzian promised the Ahankhahs during his deception actually came to fruition: (1) they appeared in a film; and, (2) they met the real Makhmalbaf. Which begs the question: if this is the case, did a fraud or con really take place? Did not Sabzian deliver what he promised?
I believe that a form of abuse, rather than a con, did take place, but wasn't by Sabzian. If anything, he's a tragic victim. After all, the Ahankhahs got what they wanted: Sabzian did serve some time in prison for his crime while the Ahankhahs appeared in a feature film. Further, Close-Up garnered Kiarostami heaps of praise and accolades worldwide for the film.
However, Sabzian, although appearing in the film and clearly enjoying the limelight, still spent time in prison and made no money from the film. He continued to live in poverty, continued his addictive escapism into film, never receiving the proper psychiatric help he most obviously required, and died suddenly at the age of 56 as poor as he started. Thus, there is a strong argument to be made for classifying Close-Up as, like much of today's "reality" television, an example of gross exploitation rather than an artistic masterpiece. Sabzian was clearly troubled and needed help, but he doesn't appear to have gotten any. In fact, the whole experience, especially appearing on movie posters and meeting Makhmalbaf, may have reinforced Sabzian's fantasies. Further, if not for Kiarostami's interference, Sabzian would have spent more time in prison and may have snapped out of his stupor or perhaps received treatment. Instead, the true "reality" is that Sabzian ended up being just another victim of the media age. He was useful for the purposes of the filmmakers, but once they were finished with the film and had Sabzian tell the story they wanted the audience to hear, they appear to have been finished with him as well and don't appear to have been concerned with his mental state at all.
There are numerous extras spread across the 2-discs. On disc one, there is commentary by Kiarostami specialists Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum. They pontificate about the film's creation, its many layers, its significance in Iranian cinema, and Sabzian. Also included is an early film by Kiarostami called "The Traveler." It's a sad story about a young boy that is willing to go to great lengths to see a live soccer match in Tehran. Disc two contains the most significant extra: "Close-up" Long Shot, a documentary about Sabzian six years after the film. This is the extra that changed my opinion of the film completely. It's a rather harrowing account of Sabzian continuing to live his delusional life, trapped in film. During the documentary Sabzian talks about his abusive childhood, which contributed strongly to his descent into escapism. Sabzian does not talk about this at all during the trial sequences in Close-Up. It's a shame that Kiarostami was not curious enough to ask Sabzian about his youth and discover his past (or perhaps he did, but didn't think that it helped the message he wanted to deliver). It may have helped the poor man as well as Kiarostami make a better film about the relationship between people and art.
Also, included on disc two is an interview with Kiarostami where he talks about Sabzian and Close-Up. The other extra is a "Walk with Kiarostami," an interview with Kiarostami by director by Iranian film professor Jamsheed Akrami. Akrami seems in awe of Kiarostami and struggles to ask meaningful questions. Luckily, Kiarostami is game enough to engage in conversation.
The release also contains a booklet with an essay by film critic Godfrey Cheshire, who, like most other critics, praises the film profusely without consideration for the plight of Sabzian.
The video and audio aspects are excellent given the source material. The video is far form perfect; there are some scratches, weak color at times, and the trial scenes are not the same quality as the rest of the film, but it is clean for the most part and there are no really distracting flaws. The audio is a simple mono track, but it is clear without any problems to speak of.
The more I think about Close-Up the more I believe the film to be a blunder. What has Kiarostami is accomplished here? More and more, it looks like he got carried way with using a disturbed man to make a pretentious statement about the nature of film and it's impact on people, although Kiarostami actually failed to see the real impact film had on Sabzian as well as failing to understand the true reasons behind Sabzian's obsession. Most critics also seem to disregard the human factor, getting caught up in the film's unorthodox material and structure. In my view, this film was made without understanding or caring about the mental state of Sabzian or thinking about the impact of the film would have on him. Kiarostami treated Sabzian as an actor and pawn instead of a person. And this is the true and saddest crime of Close-Up, captured on celluloid for all to see.
Guilty. The court has serious reservations about the ethics that went into making the film and the attention paid to the mental health of its main "performer."
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Farsi)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Film