Close-Up (1990)

Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

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Close-Up is a deeply humanistic docudrama about a poor man on trial for impersonating a well-known film director.  We begin with a conversation in a car (a Kiarostami staple) between a reporter who is eager to expose this imposter and print this sensational story and his taxi driver.  In the backseat are two armed soldiers who will arrest the imposter.  When that reporter enters the house, we remain outside, with the taxi driver.  He picks flowers and kicks a bottle down a street.  Then the soldiers escort out the man, Sabzian, while the reporter hurries out in front to snap photographs of him in handcuffs.

The film will revisit this moment later on, letting us experience it through Sabzian’s point of view.  In between we see director Abbas Kiarostami himself meet Sabzian in prison and introduce the idea of making a film about the man, who is himself a fan of cinema.  Kiarostami explains that he was attracted to the case when he read the reporter’s story, due in part to how it lends itself to themes of self-reflexivity and identity within filmmaking.

Much of the film consists of footage of the actual trial of Sabzian.  He is accused of fraud and attempted burglary, a charge which he denies.  The only rationale for his identity fraud, his accusers figure, is that he wanted to rob them.  He insists that he simply enjoyed being Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the director whom he impersonated.  The motivation then had to do with how he felt about himself in reality versus how much better (and more respected) he felt as Makhmalbaf.

The trial isn’t so much a series of accusations and doubt thrown Sabizan’s way but rather something more therapeutic and kind.  The judge encourages him to explain his actions, and though his reasoning is occasionally challenged by those whom he deceived, he is given ample time to talk through his feelings.  We learn a lot about him, his insecurities and perceived shortcomings as well as the appeal of dissolving into another person entirely.

As we learn more about Sabizan we start to see reenactments of the moments he described, similar to the initial scene between the reporter and the taxi driver.  In that opening scene we don’t understand Sabzian, rather we learn about him through the eyes of an outsider, no less someone who is keen on profiting off of his actions.  His crime is strange and potentially unnerving, but the rest of the film slowly unravels Sabzian until we revisit this moment and others with a new understanding.

Sabzian is anything but sinister.  He met a woman on a bus who took an interest in the screenplay he was holding, written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf.  He offered her the script and then mentioned that he wrote it.  Because her sons are interested in film they strike up a conversation, and Sabzian offers to talk with the boys and give them any advice.

From there he struck up a relationship with the woman and her family until eventually, inevitably, they discovered he wasn’t who he said.  Because he had discussed the possibility of filming something in their house and thus scouted out each room, they believed he was casing the place so that he and a few co-conspirators could burglarize it.

In his testimony Sabzian explains the appeal of pretending to be someone else.  Because he was often too poor to afford a meal, it helped that the family was so eager to feed him.  Beyond that he enjoyed their respect and admiration and enjoyed playing the part of someone else.  It’s a similar dynamic as you see in something like Jim & Andy, another film that describes the appeal of disappearing into another character as a form of therapy.

Later in the film we see the moment in which Sabzian is arrested, and because of our empathy for the man the scene is all the more tense and distressing.  We watch the reporter arrive almost gleefully and then the soldiers come in and arrest him.  He never resists, and in court he never fights the charge that he deceived the family.  He is remorseful and eager to move on, all while demonstrating a thoughtful self-awareness of what got him into this situation.

In the end he will meet Makhmalbaf himself, and the interaction, were the entire film scripted, might feel too simplistic and sentimental, but knowing it’s real makes it much more impactful.  Sabzian melts into his arms, and then Makhmalbaf brings him back to the home of the family he fooled.  They forgive and welcome him inside.

Up Next: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2018), Dazed and Confused (1993), Destroyer (2018)

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