Abbas Kiarostami's "Close-Up" -- An Analysis

                                          In 1989, Kiarostami came across an article in the weekly magazine about the strange case of a man who had impersonated, with dubious motives, another director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and who had been unmasked before he could commit his (supposed) fraud. Kiarostami was literally fascinated by the case, and decided to investigate it as the possible subject for a film. After talking to Makhmalbaf, who agreed to work with Kiarostami on the project, both film-makers went to the prison to have a preliminary interview with the imposter; afterwards they went to see Ahankhah family, also to negotiate their participation in the film.

                                   In the light of their recent experiences, it is not surprising that the family now suspected a swindle by 'fake Kiarostami' and demanded to see both men's credentials before even allowing them into the house. While, the imposter, Hossein Sabzian, was for various reasons delighted with the idea of a film about the case, the Ahankhah family took much more convincing; their gullibility had been exposed and they did not relish the idea of the affair's becoming widely known. However, Kiarostami managed to persuade all parties and even succeeded in obtaining permission from the judicial authorities to film the trial.

                                     The well-disposed judge in charge of the case turned out to be a great cinema fan who particularly liked Makhmalbaf's films; he agreed to the proposal after consulting his superiors and even saw fit to delay the start of the hearing by a few days, so that all the relevant parties could be present to make the film crew's work easier. Kiarostami filmed the session using two 16mm cameras -- which obviously accounts for the different photographic quality of this sequences in the final cut -- without knowing whether the film would turn out to be a viable project.

                                   For weeks, Kiarostami improvised as he went along, slowly constructing the film, Close-Up, from that tremendous first day's shooting. "This is a film that made itself," the director later declared, "which came about completely naturally". Quite so. "Close-Up" (Nema-ye Nazdik, 1990)  is undoubtedly a different proposition altogether from the rest of Kiarostami's films. It has no links or particular relationship with any other of his works, somewhat like a star, which in the midst of crowded constellation, shines with its own bright light. However, the film can be understood in its proper terms only by appreciating the deep-seated reasons for Kiarostami's fascination with the 'Sabzian case' and the close, thought difficult relationship that he came to establish with its protagonist.

                                     When Kiarostami met him in the prison in Tehran, Hossein Sabzian was an unemployed print worker, about 35, a member of the large Turkish-speaking minority in Iran, who had got divorced some years previously and maintained little contact with his very young son. A great film fan, he particularly admired the work of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a director from a working class background like himself who during his career had become known for his unconditional support for the dispossessed, oppressed people. This explains why, when, owing to a chance meeting -- the encounter with Mrs. Ahankhah on a bus when she was reading the script of one of the director's most popular films, "The Cyclist" -- Sabzian started to pass himself off as Makhmalbaf.

                                   Sabzian had no kind of preconceived plan, and was not letting himself  be carried away by the conventional glamor of cinema as such, but by a kind of profound identification with the director. "Tell him that his last film is my own life" was the message he asked Kiarostami to relay to Makhmalbaf, as an expression of his admiration and a vague justification for his behavior. Once he felt at home in the character of Makhmalbaf, respected by each and every one of the Ahankhah's -- a comfortably well off family who nevertheless has their own problems at this difficult time -- Sabzian decided to continue the game, promising to shoot part of his next film, supposed entitled "The House of the Spider", with their co-operation and in their own home.  

                                   During Sabzian's relationship with the Ahankhah family, before his impersonation was discovered, he once borrowed 1900 toman from them to take a taxi and buy a small present for his son; this would constitute the main charge against him, as an unmistakable indication of his intention to swindle the trusting family. Sabzian never for a moment denied the facts themselves, but he did reject the interpretation they were given. He never questioned his guilt according to the law, but skilfully deflected the legal issue onto moral ground. Seemingly ashamed and repentant, he claimed that, although his behavior might have given grounds -- technically -- to suspect a fraud, he never had such an intention and he was guilty only of failing to repay the loan.

                                   Sabzian, was thus possessed, like so many other Kirasotami characters, by an overwhelming desire, the passion for cinema in his case, which led him to transgress against the rules of society. A compete film buff, it was Sabzian himself who moreover drew the specific comparison between himself and the protagonist of Kiarostami's "The Traveler" during the trial; "In a way, I am like the boy in the film, who pretends to take photographs to get the money he needs to go to Tehran and see the match. Then he falls asleep and misses it all, which is what I think has happened to me. From the legal point of view, I know that my behavior can't be justified, but I also think that my love for art should be taken into account." With this speech, Sabzian fully deserves the right to a prominent place in the 'hall of fame' of Kiarostami characters.

                                  "Close-Up" not only speaks to us of the human need for dreams and the cinema's enormous power of fascination; the film also introduces a damaged character, who pretends to be someone else in order to regain his own self-respect. Kiarostami is very clear on this point. Sabzian is a weak and pathetic character who tries to escape the frustrations of his life by making an unusual bid for integration into a society that excludes him. That is why his question to Kiarostami when the director visits him in prison is simply: "Could you make a film about my suffering?" That is also why it is completely incomprehensible to describe the film, unless from lack of knowledge or frivolity, as the 'comic tale of an imposter who just wants to be a film director.' Sabzian is above all a person who is suffering, to whom at a particular moment the cinema offers a temporary escape. 

                                 Kiarostami clearly gives the accused the benefit of the doubt, even though he was fully aware that Sabzian was a complicated individual, possibly twisted, not necessarily reliable. But the film persona of Sabzian is unmistakably that of a broken man, a victim who inspires sympathy and fellow feeling. The well-off family that Sabzian deceives is also using him -- the famous Makhmalbaf -- to try to solve some of their own problems and to escape from the tedium of their daily lives. The film gives us no information about Mr. Ahankhah (a colonel, retired from the service owing to the revolution), but it does about his sons; Mehrdad, the youngest, is an engineer who still has not managed to find work six months after graduating and who runs the risk of ending up, like his elder brother, working in a bread factory.  

                                Nobody in "Close-Up" seems satisfied with who they are or what they do. The problem, Kiarostami seems to be saying, is not only Sabzian's. His case works in the film as a genuine distorting mirror of the situation of Iran in 1990. The absence of exact references to times and dates means that the audiences must continually reorder the scenes that they are shown on the screen, change their perspectives and question their perceptions, in an uncomfortable but productive state of uncertainty. A perfect example of this is the film's first sequence, even before the credits, when the journalist, accompanied by two soldiers, takes the taxi to Ahankhahs' house to arrest the impostor Sabzian, about whom at this stage we know nothing. 

                                For some minutes we listen to the desultory conversation between the taxi-driver and journalist, interrupted only by brief appeals to the soldiers and short-halts to ask passers-by (in typical Kiarostami fashion) for directions to the address they are looking for. Once at the house, the audience, who has no more information than this, is left outside with the taxi-driver, watching him pick a flower out of a pile of leaves and kicking a spray can down the road...... for more than 30 seconds. The sequence is excellent and testifies to the rigorous investigation of form that, Kiarostami was undertaking in his films. Concerning this opening sequence, he explained in a interview: "I was constantly hunting for scenes in which there was 'nothing happening.' That nothingness i want to include in my film. Some places in a movie there should be nothing happening, like in Close-Up, where somebody kicks a can. I needed that "nothing" there."

                                 "Close-Up is not a film about cinema", Kiarostami staged categorically; "it is portrait of a man who is searching, erratically but desperately, for his place in the world. It is only because his passion, the object of his desire and his source of comfort is the cinema that the Close-Up is also about cinema."

                                 But "Close-Up" is not in any way inspired by a reflexive or self-referential intention; its discourse is rather that of solidarity and compassion. That is why Kiarostami, in the celebrated final sequence, rewards Sabzian with an unexpected gift: the real Makhmalbaf is waiting for him when he is released from prison, to take him on his motorbike to apologize to the Ahankhah family. Kiarostami has not only played a major part in his release and ensured that in a way he fulfills his promise to the Ahankhahs, to turn them into the protagonists of a film; he also gives him the chance to meet his idol, Makhmalbaf. 

                             "Close-Up" was given a poor reception in Iran; Kiarostami maintains that he can't remember reading a single good review after it was first screened. But, the future of "Close-Up" was decided abroad, basically in France, where it was given an early and warm welcome, which gave rise over time to its international reputation as a genuine cult film. The movie is a difficult one to classify. It seems to defy the usual critical categories, and forces us to think about the fictive transparency of the real. This film is undoubtedly one of the defining characteristics of Kiarostami's work.

Abbas Kiarostami discussing about "Close-Up"

Close-Up (Nema-ye Nazdik) -- IMDb


Unknown said...

Very interesting read.. :)


Murtaza Ali Khan said...

Wow... that was one helluva review. You review manages to brilliantly capture the true essence of the film. The movie made me laugh and it also brought me to tears. Absolutely mindbogglingly stuff. Keep the juggernaut rolling!!! :-)

Arun Kumar said...

@vishal arora, Thanks for the comment. Keep visiting.

@ Murtaza Ali, Thank you very much. I also had both kind of extreme emotions when watching this movie.

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