Close-up (Nema-ye Nazdik, 1990)

Director: Abbas Kiarostami

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Close-up, the extraordinary film documenting the trial of a man accused of impersonating noted Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, put Abbas Kiarostami on the map of the world. He and Makhmalbaf, of course, were the leaders of the Iranian New Wave that hit its stride during the 1980s, ironically, in the aftermath of the country’s 1979 Islamic revolution. An early champion of Iranian cinema, Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in 2002:

Part of what has made Iran a movie-mad country in recent years, with about a dozen film magazines coming out regularly, is that cinema provides one of the only routes to upward class mobility available in that society. … Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s status as a local culture hero—an impoverished fundamentalist who evolved into a successful reformist filmmaker—is undoubtedly tied to this fact, and the desire of an out-of-work bookbinder to impersonate someone like him, giving him access to upper-class society, which set the real-life plot of Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-up in motion, clearly has a lot to do with what made that 1990 film the most influential of all Iranian new wave features.

Certainly, Close-up has been influential in Iran and around the world, but the story it tells concerns more than one man striving to reach beyond his impoverished conditions. Hossain Sabzian speaks for all of us when he describes how he wished to be admired in the same way as his hero, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and to create something of beauty and lasting significance for people like himself. It is uniquely appropriate that a philosophical examination of art should be intertwined with a real-life drama in a country with a centuries-long reputation as a cultural and artistic center.

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The film opens in a taxi that is carrying magazine journalist Hossain Farazmand and two police officers to the Tehran home of the Ahankhahs. Farazmand tells the cabbie (Hooshang Shamaei) that he has the story of a lifetime, one that will make his career. His excitement is, frankly, a little annoying in its self-congratulatory nature. Nonetheless, it becomes obvious soon enough that Farazmand is rather inept and needs this story to help secure his position in a country raging with unemployment. After the rather lengthy car trip and the exchange of personal information between the driver and passengers, the cops follow Farazmand into the Ahankhah compound and emerge with Sabzian. Farazmand nearly forgets his briefcase, then goes from gate to gate, buzzing intercoms and asking the neighbors if they can loan him a tape recorder. None can oblige.

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Kiarostami visits Sabzian in prison where he is awaiting trial. Sabzian tells him that his court date is late in January, and Kiarostami promises to try to get the date moved up. We have an encounter with a court bureaucrat who says he has no power to change the date but will comply with the authorities above him. “What’s the rush?” he wants to know. There are much more serious, interesting cases than this one. Serious? Yes. Interesting. Probably not, especially for a film maker and his audience.

Eventually, we enter the courtroom, a full month earlier than Sabzian’s trial was to be held. So a man like Kiarostami has some pull. With cameras and microphones set up to record the proceedings, the judge asks the Ahankhah patriarch if he would be willing to drop his suit. He answers that he would, but that his sons wish to press forward. He will not oppose their wishes. Mehrdad Ahankhah speaks for the aggrieved family, saying that Sabzian gained their confidence in an effort to burglarize their home; in addition, he accepted a not trifling sum of money from them. With the grounds of a trial still in place, the judge and Kiarostami proceed to question Sabzian and the witnesses against him about the fraud he admits he carried out.

Through reconstructions using the actual individuals involved, Kiarostami shows how the fraud began innocently enough and progressed over the week. Sabzian was reading the script for Makhmalbaf’s The Bicyclist on a bus when Mrs. Ahankhah sat down next to him and asked him where he got it. “A bookstore,” he answered. Then he offered it to her and said he wrote it. “You’re Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the famous director,” she asked. “Yes.” “Why are you taking a bus? You must have your own car.” “I like to look for interesting people to cast in my films.” Mrs. Ahankhah says her family loved The Bicyclist and that her sons would love to meet him. Thus, the scene has been set for Sabzian to play the great director for a willing audience of admirers.

Close-up%206.jpgAs the trial progresses, the judge questions him on why he carried on with the charade. Sabzian adamantly denies that he wanted to rob the Ahankhahs. True, he was unemployed, and he took the money Mehrdad offered him, using it to buy some things for his son. But he became entranced with the idea of playing Makhmalbaf. It opened doors for him and got people to listen to him. Mr. Ahankhah even offered to cut down some trees in his courtyard to make shooting an exterior shot easier.

“Why didn’t you become an actor?” asks the judge. “I would like to be an actor,” says Sabzian, “but the means are not available to me.” “Why Makhmalbaf?” asks Kiarostami. “Because he dignifies people like me in his films. The Bicyclist is a part of me.”

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In the final shots of the film, Kiarostami films Mohsen Makhmalbaf meeting Sabzian and giving him a ride on his motorcycle to the Ahankhahs. The microphone being used to record their conversation as they ride through the streets of Tehran is faulty, so we hear very little. We see them stop to buy a plant for the Ahankhahs and watch Sabzian ring the intercom. He announces himself as Sabzian. Silence. He adds, “Makhmalbaf,” then the real Makhmalbaf comes to the door and announces himself. The door opens, and a sobbing Sabzian presents the plant and asks, bowing low, for forgiveness.

This film is incredibly moving. Listening to Sabzian talk about his life, the breakup of his marriage due to his inability to provide for his family, his frequent escapes into movies, and finally, a deception that may have looked sinister to the younger Ahankhahs but really amounted to little more than a vacation from reality for everyone involved, well, it’s a riveting human drama. At the end, when the door doesn’t open immediately for Sabzian, he uses a name that has opened it before. How sad. How true.

The film also creates a strange sort of wish fulfillment for the Ahankhahs and Sabzian. They all wanted to be actors in a movie, and ironically, the fraud has made that possible in Kiarostami’s film. Even though the Ahankhahs live a very comfortable life, their futures aren’t guaranteed; both sons are unable to secure a job in their chosen field of engineering. Sabzian’s offer to them to do something artistic and visible was an irresistible carrot to satisfy their ego needs as well.

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I don’t know whether Iranian courts were or are this humane or whether Kiarostami’s camera had an influence. Whatever the reason, it was soul-warming to see this simple man truly get his day in court. By bringing his own plight to light in this very unique film, Sabzian became a voice for all the struggling people of his country. He also is a persuasive advocate for the arts and allows us to examine our own relationship to art in a very meaningful way. In our current times, with economic gloom hitting at all levels and the need for the healing power of art never greater, this film couldn’t be more timely. l

  • Gautam spoke:
    4th/04/2009 to 8:30 am

    Marilyn- a very thoughtful article. It’s amazing that you, in the US, saw the same things in this film that I did too,(in my case Iran being two countries away). A filmmaker I had known once wrote a great article on this film- on a critic comparing it to Godard’s work and how it is a case of apples and oranges- I wish I could retrieve a link for you, I will look for it surely.
    This is what I love about Kiarostami’s films, they transcend their 2-dimensional cinematic projections don’t they? They un-build every fourth wall and erase the lines between reality and fiction. They’re an advanced cinephile’s indulgence.
    Have you seen his wonderful “Taste of Cherry”- the ending is just bizarre and haunting. I often ponder over it, even after so many years.

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    4th/04/2009 to 10:50 am

    This is quite the fascinating and typically fecond piece of writing examining one of this celebrated director’s most remarkable works.
    I’m sure Marilyn has seen and knows TASTE OF CHERRY quite well, Gautam. For me it’s between TASTE OF CHERRY and THE WIND WILL CARRY US as Kiarostami’s masterpiece, but this ‘incredibly moving’ film could not be more timely indeed.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/04/2009 to 12:34 pm

    I’ve seen Taste of Cherry and The Wind Will Carry Us and, unfortunately, Ten, which I thought was unsuccessful and self-indulgent. It is a fine line mixing a story with the reality of shooting the story, and it didn’t come off in Ten, as it did so beautifully in the three films here. I think The Wind Will Carry Us is my favorite, but it’s hard to choose among the riches he’s presented us with, no?

  • Greg spoke:
    4th/04/2009 to 4:06 pm

    his inability to provide for his family, his frequent escapes into movies,
    Sounds like me a lot of the time and that inability my wife and I suffer from is the source of a great amount of stress. We’re not to his point but I can understand the desire to find a way, a quick way, a dishonest way. It sounds like an amazing film.
    I have read all of Rosenbaum’s writings on Kiarostami but I’ve still never seen any of his films because I have also read Roger Ebert’s writings on him. Ebert equates him with the story of the Emporer’s New Clothes and calls his style an affectation. I don’t who is right until I actually watch the damn things but now that someone I have conversed about film online with likes his work well it’s probably time I gave him a shot.
    Have you, Marilyn, or Sam or Gautam read Ebert’s reviews of Taste of Cherry? It’s pretty scathing. What did you think of his review? I find I disagree with Ebert about 30, maybe 40, percent of the time. Lately the number’s been growing. So is he crazy with his review?

  • Marilyn spoke:
    4th/04/2009 to 6:34 pm

    I just read the review, Greg, and I have to say that I was never bored by the film the way Ebert was. Rosenbaum makes great points about the way Kiarostami has developed the car as a mise en scene in itself because of restrictions by the Iranian government. I think Taste of Cherry takes that technique about as far as it can go. As for the ending, it puzzled me at first, but I think it was a natural extension, or experimentation, of his mixing of fiction and documentary styles. I think Kiarostami has great humanity, and I felt it in Taste of Cherry.

  • Campaspe spoke:
    13th/04/2009 to 7:57 pm

    Beautiful review of a great movie. I was also fascinated by the humane attitude of the film and the essential decency of the people depicted, all the way up to the Islamic court judge — a figure you almost never see positively portrayed in Western movies. But you make an excellent point, that the struggles of life in Iran are also very much there as well.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/04/2009 to 9:29 am

    Siren, thanks. This is a film that stuck with me years after I first saw it. It says so much about the place of art in our society. I wish it were shown to every school board in the country.
    I can’t think of another films with an Islamic court judge in it, as a matter of fact. The fact that he’s the real deal is also very unique.

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