Criterion // 1990 // 98 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // June 22nd, 2010
"With its universal themes and fascinating narrative knots, Close-up has resonated with viewers around the world"
Early in its life, photography was considered by some to be "less" than art because the camera "only" recorded what was put in front of it. While this represents a profound misunderstanding of photographic technique, it's an idea that persisted well into the motion picture era. However, instead of seeing it as a liability, some artists attempted to claim that moving pictures could be superior because they could "document" reality in a totally new and objective way, allowing viewers unprecedented access to the world around them. Of course reality is not that simple. Take, for instance, the Zapruder film -- which might be the most analyzed film in history -- has been used by every side of the Kennedy assassination debate to bolster their arguments. If the film is in fact the one and only truth of the events, then it shouldn't be able to be used for mutually exclusive arguments. Herein lies the problem with so-called documentary films: For all they document, they never achieve a complete record, they never tell a complete story. And story is what most viewers are after. Numerous filmmakers, from Rob Reiner in This is Spinal Tap to Errol Morris in The Thin Blue Line, have pointed out the shaky divide between fiction and film, but few have done so with as much flair as Iranian filmmmaker Abbas Kiarostami did with Close-up. This provocative film, which explores the nature of cinema and reality, has received the coveted Criterion treatment on Blu-ray, and fans of documentary, foreign cinema, and Kiarostami in particular are going to want to pick up this release.
In 1989, Hossein Sabzian impersonated noted Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf and managed to dupe a wealthy family in Tehran, convincing them that they would be involved in his next movie. When Sabzian appeared unaware of a prestigious award won by a Makhmalbaf movie, the family became suspicious, and because some money had changed hands the family got the police involved. When an article about the fraud appears in a newspaper, director Abbas Kiarostami drops his latest film project to investigate. With the participation of the family and Hossein, Kiarostami sets out to document Sabzian's trial and recreate his fraud with the help of victim and perpetrator alike.
Close-up was a wakeup call on many levels. It heralded a revitalized Iranian cinema, a cinema that was emotionally deep and formally daring, and one that would increasingly butt heads with the fundamentalist establishment for the decades to follow. It also announced the international arrival of its director, Abbas Kiarostami, to the world at large. Although he'd been making films for years and would go on to more critical acclaim with the Golden Palm-winning Taste of Cherry, Close-up was really the film that made people take notice. Cinematically, it creates a bridge between some of the narratively sparse films of the past while also looking forward to a more experimental international cinema in years to come.
Close-up is a film it feels pointless to talk about. Because it fictionalizes (or at least recreates with artistic license) the factual while documenting its own creation, it creates an entire world, one in which everything is both fact and fiction. That makes it a daunting film to view, as Kiarostami layers fact upon fact, playing on the audience's knowledge of fiction and film. Close-up is also an easy film to watch: we open on several men in a cab riding to a house where a man is to be arrested. Only 15 minutes in do we learn that all the actors are playing themselves, and it's not difficult to appreciate the film as a simple telling of Sabzian's story. Only on repeat viewing (and with some background filled in by helpful resources like the booklet Criterion has included with this release) do the overlaps and fissures between fact and fiction become apparent. Those shifting lines between what's "real" and what Kiarostami has capture make the film an entrancing viewing experience, one that's frustrating to write about.
What's not frustrating, however, is Criterion's presentation of the film on Blu-ray. Close-up was obviously shot on a low budget, utilizing numerous film stocks and diverse lighting situations. Consequently, the film is never going to look reference quality. Criterion, though, have given the film the deluxe treatment. Grain is consistent and pleasant without being noisy, the slightly washed out colors are strong despite the heat that seems to be radiating off of ever surface, and there are no significant compression problems or print damage to speak of. The mono audio is slightly less impressive, but there was obviously less to work with. Sounding like it was recorded on location, the dialogue occasionally distorts, with occasional bits of hiss here and there. These are minor quibbles though, because in general dialogue is clear and well balanced, making this an easy film to hear.
Criterion has released another Kiarostami picture (Taste of Cherry), and it seems like they planned the extras for Close-up to make up for that almost-barebones release. Things kick off with a commentary by scholars Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, and the pair discuss the film's production, themes, and reception. We're also treated to two documentaries. The first is a peek in on Hossein Sabzian in the years after the film was release, while the second covers Kiarostami's career in great detail. Kiarostami is also featured in an exclusive interview that runs almost half an hour discussing Close-up and its effect on his career. Finally, the usual Criterion booklet includes a nice essay by Godfrey Cheshire that provides some much-needed context for the film.
Hopefully it's clear by now that Close-up is not the average narrative drama. The movie can be slow and challenging, and doesn't provide any neat answers to the questions it asks about the role of reality in cinema (or cinema in reality). Although serious cineastes owe it to themselves to watch the film, the average film viewer will probably leave more frustrated than satisfied.
The folks at Criterion are obviously aware that Close-up is a landmark in international cinema, and went all out for this Blu-ray release. We've got a fascinating and important film, a stunning transfer, solid audio, and enough supplements for any two films. For fans of foreign and art-house cinema this one is a winner, and it's easily worth a rental for the more adventurous film lover.
After getting a good look, Close-up is obviously not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* PCM 1.0 Mono (Farsi)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1990
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Film