Close-up is a key film not only in the career of Abbas Kiarostami but also in the in the history of cinema. The familiar elements from Kiarostami’s previous works are there – of real people living ordinary lives but caught up in the importance of their own realities, the smaller scale of the film’s subjects nevertheless opening up a wider perspective on people and society. Unlike the director’s previous works however, which were either fictional stories or documentaries, Kiarostami would find a real-life incident and through his own intervention shape the outcome. Without losing any of the director’s sense of compassion for ordinary people and the lives they lead, Close-up at the same time raises many interesting questions about cinema and the nature of the director as an artist, something that Kiarostami’s subsequent films all grapple with to ever astonishing results, the director increasingly withdrawing his presence and almost letting the films make themselves.
The incident that piques Kiarostami’s interest in Close-up is a story he read in a newspaper about a man who was arrested for impersonating the famous Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Getting himself invited into a wealthy family’s home, the man, Hossain Sabzian, continues to keep up this deception, saying that he can use their house in his next film and coaching the members of the family for acting roles in it. His impersonation of the film director is apparently not an attempt to defraud them or burgle their house, but done simply for the enjoyment and prestige it affords him into being accepted by people who normally wouldn’t associate with a poor working man.
Kiarostami’s response to this rather simple story of minor interest is however remarkable. He manages to get permission to film the man’s trial (even managing to get the date changed to suit his filming schedule) and is given freedom to ask the man questions himself in the courtroom. In addition to the documentary footage, the director also restages events naturalistically, using the real people involved playing themselves, and goes further and intervenes at the end, bringing Sabzian face-to-face with the man he impersonated. Without resorting to fictional devices, but certainly not adhering to strictly documentary protocol, Kiarostami nevertheless gets to the heart of the story and the people involved, and finds that there is a lot more going on than is evident on the surface.
You can see why Kiarostami would be interested in such a story. In many respects - barring the one small but significant factor that the man is not really a director – what Sabzian does is not so different from what Kiarostami does as a filmmaker. He sees the opportunities for films from real-life in ordinary people and, making them play roles, he transforms them through his presence into something called “art". Essentially, Sabzian, a tremendous admirer of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and in particular his film The Cyclist, perhaps unconsciously wants to do the same thing for the Ahankhah family, but without the means, the money and the backing to do so, should his desire for creativity and expression be any less valid if it is not actually committed to celluloid?
Kiarostami tackles this issue head-on through the manner in which he makes the film itself, approaching reality and manipulating it in the same way, making people play roles while still being themselves. On the one hand he draws the viewer into his reconstruction – the opening taxi scene in particular forcing the viewer into the cab and into a recreated world, yet allowing it to flow according to its own rules, switching focus from the journalist covering the arrest to the police in back seat and then onto the taxi driver himself, while the arrest takes place almost in the background. The effect this achieves is highly effective, picking up small and seemingly irrelevant details of people’s lives and allowing them to speak for themselves, at the same time touching on the nature of human interaction and wider social concerns.
Having drawn the viewer into this story, Kairostami then steps back and shows the director’s hand manipulating events and in doing considers the meaning of art, literature and filmmaking and its power to influence and transform our lives. There’s certainly a large amount of self-reflection in this approach, but it’s a valid one in this case, the manipulations and layering of meaning making art indistinguishable from reality without losing any of the underlying sense of compassion for the lives of the people involved.
Close-up is released in the UK by Soda Pictures. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc, is in PAL format, and is encoded for Region 2.
Close-up is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio in a very nice progressive transfer. Colours and tones are strong and clear and there are excellent levels of clarity and detail in the image. This is variable of course, depending on the film stock used. The trial scenes appear to be filmed on 16mm and are evidently of a lesser quality, showing rather more in the way of minor marks and damage, but these would appear to be inherent within the original elements. The same could probably also be said for the minor thin tramline scratches that are also occasionally visible in the 35mm stock footage, as they seem to be only on specific reels. Overall the print quality is quite impressive, as is the digital transfer, which only shows the most minor of compression artefacts.
The audio track is also excellent, with again any problems (overdubbing and synchronisation) being down to the conditions in which it was recorded and edited. The cutting out of the microphone on one particular scene at the end of the film would seem to be intentional and done for effect. Generally, the quality is very good, with the dialogue clear, strong and wel-toned.
English subtitles are provided for the film in a clear white font and are optional.
Opening Night of Close-up (6:48)
A short comedy piece by Nanni Moretti, the director himself plays the owner and programmer of a small cinema that is putting on a showing of Kiarostami’s Close-up. Inevitably, with unenthusiastic staff and up against competition of likes of Speed, The Lion King and Four Weddings and A Funeral, the public response to the qualities of an undubbed Iranian film is not exactly encouraging.
Close-up on Close-up (20:42)
Geoff Andrews examines the film at length and identifies its themes and points of interest in Kiarostami’s technique. Taking far too long merely relating what goes on in the film, it’s surprisingly a fairly superficial look which only sees the film’s subject as one of compassion and understanding people. Without over-analysing the film however, it’s still a reasonably good primer for the other themes that the viewer will undoubtedly find in the film themselves.
Part documentary, part reconstruction and part manipulation, Close-up manages to convey the power of art and filmmaking not only within its storyline but within its very structure and making. Dazzlingly clever and multi-layered it may be, but this is no mere exercise in technique, Abbas Kiarostami at the same time never losing sight of the essential human element characteristics and the underlying social circumstances that even the simplest of situations can reveal if only you know where to look. Many will be happy to just have this film available on a good quality DVD, but Soda Pictures have gone further and provided a couple of good extra features, making this a very nice package indeed.