A few months ago while watching F for Fake, another Blind Spot selection, for the first time, I found myself intoxicated by the way Orson Welles playfully blurred the lines between fiction and reality. Welles used the notion of truth, and the film’s apparent reliance on it, as a ruse to manipulate the viewer’s notions of cinema and art. It was his way of proving that art and fiction are inherently intertwined. Attempting to untangle the intricately knotted strands of truth and fiction evoked a gleeful sense of discovery. A similar feeling washed over me while watching Abbas Kiarostami’s carefully crafted Close-Up.
Unlike Welles, Kiarostami does not openly assume the role of the omnipotent ringmaster. Though he clearly knows how the events will play out. The fact that he incorporates reconstructions of the events, using the real people, is further proof of this. Similar to a vivid painting, Kiarostami’s creates a cinematic portrait in which the frame is just as important as the canvas within it. It is why Kiarostami is not shy about reminding the viewer of the camera’s constant presence. In many ways the camera becomes the most intriguing character in the entire film.
To grasp the unique brilliance of Close-Up, one first needs to understand the role cinema itself plays in the film’s plot. Playing out like a real-life version of Six Degrees of Separation, Close-Up documents how an imposter infiltrates a rather well-to-do family unit. Hossain Sabzian is a man who has a passionate love for film, especially the works of noted Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. It is while reading Makhmalbaf’s book “The Cyclist” on the bus one day that Sabzian strikes up a conversation with the matriarch of the Ahankhah clan. Intrigued by the woman’s interest in Makhmalbaf’s book, Sabzian pretends that he is the famous director who authored the text.
Soon Sabzian finds himself not only earning the trust of the entire family, but also basking in the attention they shower upon him. When it is discovered that a trickster is in their midst, the Ahankhahs have the young charismatic man – who borrowed money from them for a film he not only claimed to be making but also promised the family roles in – arrested for fraud. Discovering the story in a magazine article written by Hossain Farazmand, Abbas Kiarostami sets out to film the trial in hopes of uncovering what would motivate Sabzian to perpetuate such a lie.
What the director finds is not a skilled deceiver like the con man in Bart Layton’s The Imposter, but rather a mild-mannered man lacking self-esteem. An individual who let his love for the power of art cloud his moral compass.
Frequently blurring the lines between fact and fiction, including taking time to focus on everyday moments like an aerosol can rolling down the street and a cab driver talking to two soldiers about their villages of origin; Kiarostami creates a mesmerizing film that makes that audience reflect on the nature of cinema every step of the way. Filming the courtroom scenes in 16 mm “close-up”, he provides the film with a sense of authenticity. Allowing the viewer to feel as if they are in the jury box, silently observing and judging the testimonies of all involved. However, the fact that these moments are being captured on film provides the sequences with a thin layer of artifice.
The challenge is deciphering what moments are indeed real. Truth and fiction are so skillfully weaved together that Kiraostami keeps the audience’s mind racing throughout.
For example, there is a sequence towards the end of the film, while Kiarostami and crew follow Sabzian after he is released from prison, where the audio cuts in and out. Kiarostami’s voice is heard, seemingly talking to his sound engineer, about the fact that the technology they are using is old. It is a disorienting moment that, at the film’s rawest point, offers yet another layer to the piece. Like a true artist, Kiarostami appears to be bringing the viewer behind the scenes under the guise of truth but, in the process of doing so, only ends up adding another coat of ambiguous paint to the film’s already rich cinematic canvas.
The fascinating thing about Close-Up’s deconstruction of the cinematic art form is that it makes the narrative at its core even more compelling. Abbas Kiarostami ensures that we feel a connection with these real people who are essentially playing, well, real people. We are both emotionally invested and intellectually stimulated by what the director displays on screen. He presents a carefully orchestrated film that feels natural and fluid.
Close-Up is a film that practically demands multiple viewings to capture all its intricacies. It manages to turn a simply, albeit peculiar, tale into an extraordinary piece of cinematic art.