An Iranian man, Hossein Sabzian, fools a family into believing he is a well-known director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He borrows money from the family and tells them he wants to use their house for his next film, and have them act, as well. Suspicions arise, he is found out to be a liar, and they take him to court for fraud. But why? Half documentary and half re-creations of events, the 1990 film Close-Up is odd, a strange mixture of reality and replication. Director Abbas Kiarostami became interested in the case as it was occurring, having read an article in a magazine and injected himself into the situation, eventually altering the outcome of the case itself. Kiarostami asked if he could be allowed to film the actual trial, and then convinced the various participants to re-enact some of the events in question.
Close-Up occurs at a stunningly slow pace though the film itself is 98 minutes in length, and you feel every single, dull one of them. At first you can't tell if the events transpiring are fictional or real, and that is precisely what Kiarostami seems to want. Perhaps he believes that the truth is somewhere in between the fictional re-enactments and the footage from the actual trial, though Godfrey Cheshire's essay makes it clear that Kiarostami heavily influenced the case. One of the strangest things is that nothing really happens. No one is particularly outraged, and this small event doesn't seem to affect anyone greatly. Sabzian cannot really explain himself well during his own trial, and apparently Kiarostami even scripted much of his confession and testimony. Over and over Sabzian is asked to give some reason for his actions, and it is unclear why he has done what he did. He seems to believe that he was giving something to the family, that their initial chance encounter and their belief in his claim gave them some excitement and some unclear purpose. The family doesn't see things quite the same way, and the trial scenes are particularly strange as everyone dispassionately describes the situation and attempts to make sense of what has happened. Rather interestingly, the individuals in the film all play themselves, from the journalist, Mr. Farazmand (who looks like an Iranian Columbo of sorts), to the outraged family Ahankhah. Even the director who was impersonated by Sabzian makes an appearance toward the end. The two men have a conversation and Sabzian seems deeply affected by meeting the man who had meant so much to him. There is a striking likeness between the two men, which makes it easy to see how Sabzian had passed himself off so easily.
It's difficult for me to understand why this film was included in the Criterion Collection, though I was glad that it was in one respect. Having never been exposed to much Iranian film, it was interesting to see a film that has won many prestigious awards. The image is low quality but restored to the best of the Collection's ability, along with improved sound and subtitles. As far as the rest of the release goes, there are a great deal of extras and information here, including Kiarostami's film The Traveler, which is mentioned in Close-Up. The essay by Godfrey Cheshire is long-winded and pompous, though it is interesting as it goes on. Also included on the two-disc set are audio commentary with Kiarostami experts and a video interview that was recently recorded with Kiarostami himself. A documentary portrait of Kiarostami called A Walk with Kiarostami provides insight into the director.
Perhaps most notably in the special features, there is a short film -- Close-Up, Long Shot, wherein Sabzian explains himself further, delves into his childhood, and is given a forum for many of his ideas. He reveals himself to be quite a thinker, handily quoting Sartre and remarking that "...people like me, who think like me, are melting away like snow. There are horizontal corpses and vertical corpses, perhaps we are the second kind." As bad-freshman-girl-poetry as that reads to me, Sabzian remains an enigma to me. Though I've seen the film and the special features, he strikes me as a particularly lonely and solitary man who was unable to cope with this sadness and reached out in a strange way.
Close-Up is available now from the Criterion Collection.