What is a movie? What is a documentary? What role does cinema play in our lives? I have one more question for you: Can an engrossing narrative film be made out of such meta concerns?
Yes, at least in the hands of Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. Close-Up is an exercise in film theory, but thankfully it’s rooted in how this theory plays out in the life of Hossain Sabzian (playing himself). Sabzian, you see, once actually posed as famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and conned a wealthy family into believing he would use their home in his next film. The charade eventually unraveled and Sabzian was taken to court. Close-Up is a documentary-like restaging of the events – including the trial – using many of the real people involved.
So, is this documentary or fiction? Best leave that question to academics and instead consider the movie through Sabzian’s eyes (whether he’s “acting” or not). This is a person who has become obsessed with the cinema to the point that he longer knows where it ends and he begins. Sure, the authority he has as a supposed director brings some order to what we sense is an aimless life, but Sabzian’s reason for the ruse goes deeper. When he describes one of Makhmalbaf’s films as “a part of me,” we begin to understand just how deeply a piece of art can affect a person’s sense of self.
Back to the bigger questions. Does Close-Up reveal the truth? I’d prefer to say it reveals the beauty of distortion. A common Kiarostami visual trope is employed here, in which the camera shoots through the windshield of a car as its occupants converse. These are flickering glimpses rather than clear shots, as light bounces off the glass and reflections of passing objects create evolving Rorschach tests across the actors’ faces. This may not be the truest, most pristine depiction of the people in the car, but it’s infinitely more illuminating than a standard, unobstructed shot would be. Perhaps so many of Kiarostami’s films – Close-Up being the definitive one – don’t care about the line between documentary and fiction because, in the grand sense, he doesn’t see one.