Fact and poetry in Kiarostami’s Close Up

Hossein Sabzian stars as himself in Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up (1990).

Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up (1990) opens with a reporter in a Tehran taxicab, on the way to the residence of a middle-class family. He tells the driver — and us — about the big story he’s about to break. A con man with a passing resemblance to the Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf is being arrested for defrauding the family whose home we are speeding toward, posing as the famous director and ingratiating himself into their lives, likely with criminal intentions, the reporter thinks. Then we arrive at the house, and the reporter dashes in. Instead of cutting to the dramatic scene unfolding inside the family home — the big reveal; an arrest; some unflattering photographs of Sabzian, the con artist — we will wait now in real time with the cab driver, as he stretches his legs in the late afternoon sun, plucks a few flowers from a nearby pile of dead leaves, and kicks a can, which pirouettes eccentrically down the sloping street.

This opening scene sets up the basic facts of the story, but when the reporter leaves the frame, we do not follow. Instead we are left with the driver and the unexpected poetry of waiting. The scene highlights the difference between journalism and documentary, and the different kinds of truth they are able to tell. Despite its narrative conventions, Close-Up is not only “based on a true story” as the opening title card reads. It is the “true story” doubling back on itself. After Sabzian’s court case, after journalism has moved on, the con man and the family are playing themselves in this reenactment of their own story — bolstered by real courtroom footage in which, one might argue, their performances are the least natural in all of the film.

This uncanny verisimilitude pricks us. In painful scenes we cannot assume that the actors are professionals relying on technique. We feel Sabzian’s suffering as a real and tangible presence. The camera movement may be choreographed, the lines scripted, the scene carefully lit, and the action blocked, but what we will ultimately watch onscreen is less a reenactment and more like an event re-happening in all its tragic, confusing, and comical turns.

Close Up’s narrative techniques allow room to explore the poetry beyond the headline “Bogus Makhmalbaf Arrested” and offers Sabzian and the family the rare opportunity to perform the past again, perhaps improving on it the second time. Part of the tension and joy of watching Close Up lies in knowing what a feat this is.

By the film’s ending, we see that it has worked. In a truly documentary moment (punctuated by the sound of a lapel mic that only half works,) the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf accompanies the imposter Sabzian to the family’s home, where Sabzian asks for forgiveness. Both men are welcomed in with a kiss. This final scene suggests that the cathartic process of recreating the past as a narrative film has led to this unlikely, beautiful, and unscripted reconciliation. ∆

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