Close-Up Review

AKA: Kluzap, Nema-ye Nadzik
Genre: Docufiction/Metafiction/Legal Drama
Year Released: 1990
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
Origin: Iran
Running Time: 97 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: G
Related Films/Series: Close-Up Long Shot, Opening Day of Close-Up
For Fans Of: F for Fake, Hello Cinema, Colour Me Kubrick, This is Not a Film, Taxi
Notes:
-The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray was used for this review.
Fun Facts:
-Close-Up is a re-enactment of a real-life court case where a cinephile named Hossain Sabzian pretended to be Mohsen Makhmalbaf to make a movie with a local family as actors. What makes this even more fascinating is that the plaintiffs, defendant, and witnesses all play themselves for this film. Even Abbas Kiarostami appears to interview Sabzian and Makhmalbaf is there in the end. The actual case happened in Tehran a few years prior to filming this.

-This actually got negative reviews in Iran at first, but it managed to win awards at the Montreal International Festival of New Cinema and Video as well as the Istanbul Film Festival.

-Music Fan Bonus: The music video of Swedish band The Tough Alliance’s “A New Chance” references the iconic motorcycle scene that plays near the end of the film.

-Some noted fans of Abbas Kiarostami consist of Michael Haneke, Jean-Luc Goddard, Akira Kurosawa, and even Martin Scorsese just to name a few.

Looks like I get to complete a certain aspect of one of my Top 7 lists as well as re-watching a movie I saw a few years ago. Last month, some of you might remember my list involving low-key innovative movies and series. I managed to mention one of Abbas Kiarostami’s works in that particular list. That director has been getting a lot of attention over the past year as I reviewed his films such as Like Someone In Love, Shirin, and The Wind Will Carry Us to name a few. This particular example has a bit of a twist because I get to finally review the first movie I ever saw from this acclaimed Iranian director. I don’t remember the exact moment, but I know it was months or possibly a year or two prior to the existence of Iridium Eye when I got my own Netflix account. I’ve heard good things about him and I heard about Kiarostami not long after discovering Jafar Panahi. One could probably guess why I would be intrigued by his work and how I would think of this particular movie, but I think it’s finally as good a time as any to talk about my thoughts here.

I know I’m talking about Abbas Kiarostami, but we get to find out when the real Makhmalbaf will please stand up. Yeah, I doubt an Eminem parody would work with that guy’s last name.

Close-Up is a docufiction re-enactment of a very bizarre case that happened in Tehran, Iran. An obsessed movie lover by the name of Hossain Sabzian pretends that he is the esteemed director Mohsen Makhmalbaf when he meets the Anankhah family. He leans into this phoniness by reading the screenplay of his movie The Cyclist (one of Sabzian’s all-time fave films) and claiming he wrote it to Mahrokh who is the mother of the family. She believes him to be Makhmalbaf and introduces him to the rest of her family with her husband Abolfazi and their adult sons Monoochehr and Mehrdad. Sabzian wants them to act in his film and they all believe him to be the real director for some time. Unfortunately, they figure out his bluff by finding a film magazine and raising their suspicions as to why he would take them to a movie together with no one in the house. The Anankhah family eventually presses charges against Sabzian for attempted fraud and fraud for him impersonating Makhmalbaf. This makes news as the “Bogus Makhmalbaf Arrested” and Abbas Kiarostami interviews as well as films the trial. How will Sabzian deal with the consequences?

Part of me feels stupid for not realizing some of the brilliant things I didn’t notice the first time around. When I first saw Close-Up years ago, I actually thought this was a straight-up docudrama and I didn’t know it was a re-enactment of a case involving everyone who was a part of this legal drama. Researching this made the movie even more effective to me. There are so many layers between the real-life case of mistaken identity and some dramatizations that feel very legit like this was a documentary that happened in real-time back then. Kiarostami’s penchant for cinema verite works wonderfully for this project with the regular cameras including some low-res ones during the court scenes which gave a bigger sense of authenticity. I also liked the motorcycle scene where the lapel mics were intentionally cut out during the dialogue between the people on that vehicle (spoilers avoided). The Sabzian character was fascinating to analyze. I know it’s the same guy playing as himself and while what he did wasn’t cool, I was curious in seeing how he ticked. Sabzian was way more obsessed with movies than other standoms I’ve seen (or back when I was a music fan, long story). He was greatly inspired by Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami. The former was a major influence because it showed the suffering of characters that he related to all too well and wanted to be like him despite having no film production skills. He wanted to be a director, but there’s an argument in the court about him also being an “actor” while he claims that acting as a director is one of the most difficult, yet impactful performances out there. I did like how remorseful he was which made him a lot more sympathetic even though he lied about his identity. Maybe it’s a personal thing, but I respect people a lot more when they own up to their wrongdoings instead of denying, downplaying their actions, or reversing the situation to make themselves play the victim (don’t get me started on how I HATE it when people and companies don’t take responsibility for their words or actions). The ending is also powerful in its own right with the aftermath as well as the emotional catharsis of what happened. I have to give props to everyone involved for portraying this bizarre case and acting like it happened whenever it was filmed instead of years ago. Besides Kiarostami and the real Makhmalbaf, no one else had filming or acting experience, so that was a very unique dynamic in this creative form of docufiction. Close-Up had so many layers with the production, existential themes, and having a unique storyline.

Close-Up could change to a different lens at times though. Like many other Abbas Kiarostami films, this could be too understated to most movie watchers. If anyone is expecting the court scenes to be anything like a Law & Order episode, then look elsewhere. I’d even argue that the court scenes in the movie Bamako were more intense than in Close-Up and that’s saying something if anyone has read my review of that Mauritanian/Malian movie. I could see the average viewer not getting all the layers of this film. I understand that it’s a layered re-enactment of a real-life case, but it was troublesome getting track of all the names besides the directors, Mehrdad Ahankhah, and Sabzian himself. It was tough knowing who was who as some people show up in the interview/interrogation scenes. When I went through the cast, I was confused about who was who until I saw the Wikipedia page after the fact especially since some of them had minuscule screen time. The biggest flaw of Close-Up and some of you might be able to guess this if they see the release date, but this was clearly made in the early 90s with the cars, fashion, and especially the technology. The neorealistic camera was gritty to make it work which I have no issues with and I know it was based on a true story, but Close-Up couldn’t exist in 2021 or even a decade prior. I’d argue that the situation could’ve been avoided if a smartphone was used. If the Ahankhah family’s predicament happened today and everyone had a smartphone, they could easily Google to see if Sabzian was Makhmalbaf or not with a basic image search, ask him questions based on the real director’s quotes, and find an Uber or Lyft to get a ride to a movie theater out of town. The reporter asking everyone in the neighborhood for a tape recorder wouldn’t happen since he could use a basic voice memo app. The driver, cops, and the reporter wouldn’t be asking people for directions since they’d use a phone to navigate or at the very least a GPS to find their way to their destination. This does have Unintentional Period Piece Syndrome written all over it even with how brilliant the film was. I’m sure younger viewers wouldn’t even recognize cassette players or analog equipment on display.

This ambitious, yet understated work from Abbas Kiarostami is my favorite work that I’ve seen from his work so far. The storytelling and the documentary-style filming was brilliant. Sabzian’s remorse and reasons for doing what he did were very fascinating even though it doesn’t excuse what he did. The acting from these non-professional actors worked very well. There are dated elements and it could be too low-key for most viewers, but that shouldn’t stop anyone at least giving Close-Up a chance. Definitely recommend.

Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1 point if you like Abbas Kiarostami’s filmography.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you prefer more intense legal dramas.
-Subtract 1-3 points if you’re not a fan of dated elements.

Pros:
-Immensely creative documentary and cinema verite filming
-Sabzian’s character arc
-So many tiers of fact and fiction intertwined

Cons:
-Unintentional period piece really showing it was made in 1990
-Can be too understated
-Lack of background with most characters

Final Score: 9/10 points

Content Advisory: Close-Up is tame even by Abbas Kiarostami standards. There aren’t any objectionable things going on. Sabzian does mention elements of poverty and suffering in Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami’s movies, but it is really more in passing. With that said, I don’t see children getting into this film as the story is more mature although it doesn’t resort to violence, sex, swearing, or anything inappropriate from an objectionable content standpoint.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Close-Up is property of The Criterion Collection. The Blu-Ray cover is from Amazon and is property of The Criterion Collection.

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