Close-Up was released in 1990. That was the same year Goodfellas, Edward Scissorhands, The Godfather Part III, Home Alone and Pretty Woman came out. Dances With Wolves was awarded the Oscar for Best Picture, and Cannes awarded the Palme d’Or to David Lynch’s Wild at Heart. If that latter group of films defined the standard of fine cinema at the time, then the exoticism of Close-Up—a deceptively pacified Iranian film about a simpleton who passes himself off as a celebrated director—is even more intriguing. For instance, few if any of the films above feature ubiquitously on all-time top-film lists today. None of them was a precursor to a refreshing, powerful new wave of cinema, unlike Close-Up.
To the untrained cinephile, however, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami’s film is still unconventional and bemusing. Consider first of all that it involves a cast of non-professional actors devoting much of their screen time to re-enacting a real-life event they were unwittingly involved in. These re-enactments leap back and forth in time, and are stitched together with actual archival footage. Scripted conversations become improvised interviews without warning. What begins as a feature film turns into a documentary and then it seems to shift into a piece of prime-time reportage. In between all that, we are treated to unexpected gems; an aerosol can rattles freely down a hill as if escaping the film, hushed conversations are documented from long distances (over a decade before Ricky Gervais made it popular on The Office) and dialogue in a climactic scene is interrupted by Morse code-like truncations.
Kiarostami’s triumph does not lie exclusively on those simple flourishes but rather in his ability to keep them relevant to a heartwarming story about a ruse that really did happen. Hossein Sabzian is an unspectacular man reading a copy of renowned filmmaker’s Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s book The Cyclist on a bus. A passenger seated next to him notices and points out his uncanny resemblance to the filmmaker. Giving it the briefest moment of thought, Sabzian reveals himself to be Makhmalbaf, beginning a ruse that he carries on for weeks, until he’s caught. Up to that point, the film is all re-enactment. Then the grainy archival footage from the court case appears, not as a cursory accompaniment to the plot, but as plot material itself.
Kiarostami isn’t afraid of revealing much of the story in the first few minutes via a fast-talking journalist accompanying police to document Sabzian’s arrest. Much of what happens afterwards is the exposition of the short-lived con from numerous points of view. Unlike most of its 1990 companions, Close-Up doesn’t find its appeal in a fusillade of spectacular occurrences. Much like the work that has defined Iran’s new wave, events are stripped of excess to reveal the complexities of humanity, culture and economics. We discover that Sabzian’s desires aren’t conniving or flippant. Like many others in that time and space, he is poor and inconspicuous. Given this accidental opportunity, he doesn’t strive just to be passed for Makhmalbaf, he wants to be him. We see it when the camera stays up-close on him during his trial, and he delivers an earnest explanation (not justification) for his crime. Through such courageous structure and cinematography, Kiarostami reveals the audacity it takes for a subjugated man to construct make-believe, stand by it, and when caught, surrender it while keeping his dignity intact.
Close-Up and Kiarostami’s legacy will endure for decades to come, not just because he allows us to revel in the kind of humanity we can enjoy outside of real-life nowadays, but because he knows that such stories can be found, in fact, in real-life. Out there where we left it.