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CLOSE-UP (Nema-ye Nazdik) (director/writer/editor: Abbas Kiarostami; cinematographer: Ali Reza Zarrindast; cast: Hossain Sabzian (Himself), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Himself), Hossain Farazmand (Reporter), Abolfazl Ahankhah (Father), Mehrdad Ahankhah (Son), Nayer Mohseni Zonoozi (Daughter), Monoochehr Ahankhah (Son), Ahmed Reza Moayed Mohseni (Friend), Haj Ali Reza Ahmadi (Judge); Runtime: 100; Zeitgeist Films; 1990-Iran)
“Abbas Kiarostami’s brilliantly perceptive film is based on a true story, but is done in mock-documentary style.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Abbas Kiarostami’s brilliantly perceptive film is based on a true story, but is done in mock-documentary style. It is about Hossain Sabzian playing himself. Sabzian’s an impostor of the famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Cyclist), and has been arrested on charges of fraud.

Sabzian meets an upper-class woman on a bus and when she inquires about the book he is reading by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, he impulsively gives her the book and tells her he is the director. During the course of their conversation Sabzian gets invited to her home where he meets her husband (Abolfazl Ahankhah) and a son (Mehrdad), who is an engineer but can’t get work in his field and is now interested in the arts. Sabzian fills the family full of ideas about shooting a film in their house, with their son starring in it.

This is a slow-moving, temperately structured film shot in the cinéma-vérité style so that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between what is real and what is reconstructed. It has a curious fascination about it. The film opens when a reporter (Farazmand) has been called to the home of Mr. Ahankhah because he suspects the person in his house is a fraud. The reporter comes by taxi with two soldiers and has the impostor arrested. The reporter is gleeful that this could be his godsend story, as it makes the headlines in his newspaper. He asks the court authorities to speed up the trial, as the accused has been in prison for three weeks on this petty charge and he wants to film the trial while the story is still hot in the news.

The film covers the trial in depth, using the testimony of the son and the accused to look back at what unfolded in the 40 days since this deception took place. The accused is charged with fraud and of lending money under false pretenses and not paying it back. Sabzian is an unemployed printer who is divorced. One child of his is being raised by his mother, while his wife has taken the other child. Sabzian claims to be a lover of films, and in particular, an ardent admirer of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose films move him the way they portray suffering.

What comes out at the trial is that Sabzian never attempted to rob the house but loved taking on the identity of the famous director, as it boosted his morale and gave him the respect he never got before. He also looks somewhat like the director, but not enough to fool anyone who has ever seen what the director looks like.

The film has a somewhat curious aesthetic feel to it, as the director’s motivations seem to be largely a test for the audience to see if they really know what they are getting from their experience in viewing a film. All those who testify tell the truth from their own viewpoint. Some of the dialogue is pleasingly witty and some of the observations made are extremely sharp. Sabzian says when asked to comment on his stay in jail: “Prisons are good for the good, but bad for the bad.”

At the film’s conclusion Kiarostami wants to make sure that we know it is only a film. He has the pardoned Sabzian return with flowers to the home of Mr. Ahankhah. Kiarostami follows him with his cameras, but the audio equipment malfunctions and the sound becomes partially muted. The director forces us to be alerted that what we are seeing is not real life, and that it is made possible only through technology. But what he has done up until that point, is use his ‘close-up’ lens to focus in on the accused and see what he is all about. Sabzian comes off as a dreamer, someone who has not found out who he is and is confused as to who he can be. This compelling film lets us think of him in whatever way we want to. The marvelous thing, is how Kiarostami can get superb performances from the non-professional actors as well as from the professionals. As Sabzian stated during the trial: “acting is just being yourself, letting it all come out from the heart.”

This is just a wonderful film, with Kiarostami’s humor prevailing. It is also an interesting look at modern Iran, its bureaucracy, its class divisions, its high unemployment, and its seemingly fair-minded court system.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”