There are films whose sound and fury signify nothing, the brutality of whose assault on the senses wanes moments after leaving the cinema (John Woo, salut!). Then there are films as limpid and simple as an afternoon spent watching clouds, films that haunt the imagination long after their viewing to reveal themselves as far more complex and suggestive than one ever imagined them to be. Close-Up, by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, is one such film. Kiarostami is not yet a name familiar to British audiences, although he is lionised on the international film festival circuit. In 1995, Godard harangued the New York Film Critics Circle over the choice of Kieslowski rather than Kiarostami for a foreign film Oscar nomination and at this year's Cannes Festival his most recent film, Taste of Cherry, shared the Palme d'Or. While it's hard to imagine the sound-bite merchants of Late Review and Moviewatch even giving Close-Up the time of day, it's an essential film and an ideal introduction to the cinema of Kiarostami, whose economy of means and apparent simplicity conceals a lucid, ludic meditation on appearance and reality.
"We are the slaves to a mask that hides our true face," says the protagonist of Close-Up and it's a statement that reverberates throughout the film. The speaker is Hossein Sabzian, an unemployed movie fan who finds himself on trial for impersonating the major Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and, having won the confidence of a well-heeled Tehrani family, telling them that he intends to cast them in a film. Sabzian's imposture begins casually, almost reflexively, on a bus journey. An older woman, the mother of the Ahankhan family, sits beside him and notices that he's reading the screenplay of The Cyclist, a film by Makhmalbaf that she admires. "Where did you get that?" she asks the man who, without skipping a beat, replies "I wrote it." In that instant Sabzian "becomes" Makhmalbaf and begins the masquerade that will eventually bring him up against the law. But, as Kiarostami's film reveals, in a way Sabzian did write The Cyclist, or at least wrote himself into it through his passion for the film: "Tell Makhmalbaf that The Cyclist is a part of me," Sabzian instructs Kiarostami at one point. None of this is fiction but, then, neither is it documentary. Kiarostami not only based Close-Up on an actual court case but incorporated its protagonists into his film, creating a work that deliberately and continually explores the porous boundary connecting fact and fiction, life and art.
Close-Up is two films in one, a hugely skilful work of cinematic origami about doubles and doubling. Kiarostami sought permission to shoot Sabzian's trial - even having the gall to request that the trial judge bring the hearing forward to fit the shooting schedule - then reconstructed the events that brought Sabzian to court. "I read the story [of Sabzian as the bogus Makhmalbaf] in a weekly magazine," Kiarostami has stated, "To quote Marquez, one is more chosen by a subject than choosing it. The first point that struck me was that the guy was not a fraud. He was, rather, infatuated by an image. What a filmmaker could do for him was to rehabilitate him, to portray him as a young man who is in love with cinema." Sabzian is a grizzled autodidact. His courtroom testimony, shot by Kiarostami in unwavering video close-up, reveals him as a sympathetic working-class solipsist whose devotion to cinema overtakes his life. Divorced and unemployed, film is as much a reality to him as the brutal conditions of his life. In this respect, Close-Up is a parable of those moments when the life of the imagination become more certain, more tangible, than the uncertainty of the material life that one inhabits.
An American film critic has described Kiarostami's films rather neatly as "Rosselini meets Pirandello" (now that's a soundbite I'd like to see Johnny Vaughan get his teeth around) in which gritty neo-realist humanism combines with hall-of-mirrors self-reflexivity and Close-Up is a perfect example of such traits. Kiarostami loops his account of Sabzian's imposture, opening with a reconstruction of his arrest - Sabzian "playing" Sabzian "playing" Makhmalbaf. It's a structure that works to give the film richness and density, as well as a thoughtfulness that is barely alluded to at a single viewing. For, as much as Close-Up is a film about "the power of cinema", as the Italian director Nanni Moretti describes it below, it is many other things as well. It's a telling anatomisation of the cross- class encounter between the wealthy Ahankhan family and the working-class Sabzian, both united by a shared love of cinema and art, at least until the "fraud " is revealed. It also contains moments of a certain kind of low-key formal daring in which Kiarostami takes inconsequential moments and details and lovingly foregrounds them. An aerosol can is kicked down a street and the camera holds on its clattering descent, an aeroplane passes overhead and a character follows it with his eyes. Kiarostami instals himself, with a curiously effective combination of insistence and unobtrusiveness, between the story and its telling. When, on Sabzian's release from prison, the real Makhmalbaf is there to meet him and take him to visit the Ahankhans again, Kiarostami's crew films the encounter from a car across the road. Their ancient sound equipment cuts in and out and, as Sabzian collapses tearfully into his alter ego's arms, this moment of concluding catharsis is interrupted by the crackle of malfunctioning electronics. It's an accidental tour de force that's no accident; the car follows the couple on a motorbike and their conversation is conveyed in gobbets of sound. Just seeing Sabzian restored to the world by cinema is, in itself, enough.
`Close-Up' opens in London at the ICA and the Rio on 19 December.Reuse content