I came to Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up quite late. It had been recommended to me for years, but I somehow never got around to watching it until a couple of months ago. I’m glad I did, since this is easily one of the most beautiful meditations on cinema and cinephilia that I have ever seen. Although there are clear continuities with Kiarostami’s other films, there’s also something sui generis about Close-Up in particular, partly because it revolves around such an incredible true story. At the heart of that story is Hossain Sabzian, a working-class Iranian man who pretended to be the director Mohsen Makhmalbaf to a middle class Tehran family, the Ahankhahs. First meeting Mahrokh Ahankhah on a bus while reading a screenplay of Makhmalbaf’s film The Cyclist, Sabzian spent more and more time with the family, telling them about his craft as a director while promising to cast them in his next film. Upon learning that Sabzian was due to be tried for identity fraud, Kiarostami stopped work on his then-current film project to make a documentary about the court case. Yet Close-Up is no ordinary docudrama, with Kiarostami – incredibly – inducing all the key players in the story to recreate key scenes from the testimony, as well as intervening in the progress of the trial and orchestrating a beautifully redemptive final meeting between Sabzian, the family, and Makhmalbaf himself.
From my experience, the part of Close-Up that feels most continuous with Kiarostami’s other work is the opening scene, which takes place in a car and follows a journalist and a police contingent as they make their way to the Ahankhah house. We find out later in the film that this was the moment at which the family confronted Sabzian with his identity fraud, but at this particular point it’s not entirely clear what significance this scene is going to serve within the ambit of the film as a whole. Instead, this plays as a way of establishing the aesthetic co-ordinates of Kiarostami’s particular cinematic universe before moving into the more general meditation on cinema that preoccupies the film proper. As the journalist and policemen talk, their references become more exotic and expansive, even as the aspect ratio and tight shots make it virtually impermissible for us to imagine a world outside the car. With virtually no visual information about the landscape passing by, the few exterior shots detail stark, anonymous buildings or suburban streets that the passengers haven’t visited since the Iranian Revolution, while the destination – the Ahankhah home – is situated in a cul-de-sac that is shot with almost as much constriction as the interior of the car.
Throughout Kiarostami’s filmography, these tightly constrained mobile spaces often fill in for a covert film culture that hides in plain sight. In both the car and the cul-de-sac, visual contingencies take on an enormous cinephilic import due to the sensory deprivation of the mise-en-scene as a whole, while Kiarostami’s gift for audio cinephilia is also on display, with official pronouncements and directions offset by small snatches of naturalistic, ambient sound that are so evocative in their plasticity that they might as well be visual. In both cases, a heightened sense of constriction and entrapment breeds a beautifully fugitive cinephilic line of flight, especially in one gorgeous sequence in which the journalist progammatically knocks on every door in the cul-de-sac in search of a piece of recording equipment, only for his method and mission to be offset by a wayward piece of metal that keeps on rolling and tumbling down the road. While the action quickly shifts back to the trial and subsequent reconstruction of events, these fleeting moments are effectively what is at stake in the film as a whole, and positions us to sympathise with Sabzian’s own fugitive cinephilic reveries before he is even introduced as a character or allowed to state his case in any way.
Of course, Close-Up also identifies with Sabzian insofar as it is difficult to know exactly how much Kiarostami himself is impersonating events – and impersonating himself – in turn. Certainly, the foundational meeting between Kiarostami and Sabzian, in which he asks for permission to film the trial, feels staged, although it is difficult to discern the extent of the artifice. At these moments, which lie between the story and the trial, it is very difficult to know what has been reconstructed retrospectively, just as it is difficult to know whether the key scenes in the story have been recreated during the trial or after the trial. The effect is all the more disorienting in that it often seems as if Kiarostami himself is directing the trial, making comments and providing suggestions from behind the camera, which he tells Sabzian is present “so that you can explain things that people might find it hard to understand.” Enjoining Sabzian to “explain it to this camera,” the presence of the camera itself – and especially the intimacy of the many close-ups, whose forensic qualities Kiarostami explains at length – quickly comes to feel like a vehicle for Sabzian to provide a different kind of testimony from that afforded by the legal system or mainstream media.
In the process, Kiarostami’s camera becomes identified with the Ahankhah family as a witness to Sabzian’s cinematic potential. At one point, Sabzian recalls that, while the family did provide him with some minor financial support, the main pull for him was that they “supported me morally,” until he felt he really was – or could be – the famous director, playing the part of auteur more and more seamlessly each time he saw them. Yet Kiarostami’s camera plays a similar function, especially in the extended close-up sequences, imbuing Sabzian with a moral gravity that produces some utterly extraordinary and eloquent moments of cinephilic testimony. At these moments, there’s something reparative and forgiving about the sheer fact of the film that collapses any sense of an official story, or a docudramatic recreation. More than that, Sabzian’s testimony – and the way Kiarostami enjoins it – dissolves any sense that Close-Up belongs to either an official national cinema or to a purely escapist cinephilia, which perhaps explains why it was greeted with such disdain and disinterest by most Iranian film critics upon its initial release. Yet that evasiveness is what also allows it to speak to the mythological power of Iranian cinema, and what allows Kiarostami to prevent his own mythological cinephilia ever settling into anything as staid or programmatic as an Iranian New Wave. In fact, years later, this film still feels somehow apart from the New Wave, since there’s something timeless about the way in which the camera seems to calm and centre Sazbian, rendering him more thoughtful, contemplative and careful about his answers, but more open, frank and eloquent in his responses as well.
It’s not just Sabzian who makes the film, however, but the entire Ahankhan family. Watching these key players all reprising their experiences with Sabzian is incredible from a forensic point of view, but there’s an even more poignant and emergent sense of catharsis in seeing them relive the episodes that brought them here in the first place, as if everyone – including Sabzian – can only rediscover what the entire experience meant under the watch of an actual camera. What really hits home, even in the reconstruction, is how seamlessly and almost inadvertently Sabzian slips into the role of Makhmalbaf – there’s no real sense that he is pretending – as this very process of replaying his own impersonation comes to feel like a punishment and redemption in one gesture, a transgression committed to celluloid but also pardoned and purified through celluloid.
Of course, Close-Up does also address the question of Sabzian’s motivation in a more programmatic way, and comes up with several interesting answers. The first lies in arguably the most amazing scene in the film, in which Sabzian first meets Mahrokh Ahankhah on the bus, and decides, on the spot, to adopt the role of Makhmalbaf. As Kiarostami, Sabzian and Ahankhah present it, this decision arises first and foremost out of the kinds of cinephilic communion that, for Kiarostami, are so endemic to cars, buses, public transit and other fugitive places of shared cinephilic rapture. At the same time, it’s clear that Sabzian was also playing out his own fantasy of being a director, something he never had the opportunity to strive for due to a fairly impoverished background and limited economic horizons. A further factor is his profound identification with Makhmalbaf as a director, whom he describes as having “spoken for me and depicted my suffering.” All these motivations seem to have placed his impersonation somewhere beyond fraud, which is presumably why the family allowed him to cast them in a film without ever checking his credentials or even wondering why he didn’t bear much resemblance to the real Makhmalbaf. In that sense, it is almost as if Close-Up fulfils both parties’ desire – both Sabzian and the Ahankhah family – to be in a film, thereby reuniting them under the sign of the cinephilia that bonded them in the first place, Throughout the trial and reconstructions, you sense a tender relationship between Sabzian and the family that hasn’t gone away – a tenderness born out of mutual cinephilic love that Kiarostami’s camera attempts to stoke back into existence. Accordingly, as the trial proceeds, Sabzian makes relatively little effort to challenge the legal consequences of his impersonation, instead insisting that what he really wants is “forgiveness…in the eternal sense” from the Ahankhah family.
As a part of that process of forgiveness, Kiarostami’s camera takes on an eternal, religious presence in turn. It makes sense, then, that the peak of Sabzian’s testimony sees him confessing that cinema provides him with a consolation that he can’t find in the Koran. Invoking the practice of repeating Mohammad’s name for mindfulness, Sabzian suggests that his impersonation has been a way of speaking Makhmalbaf’s name over and over agin, in the same way that he saw his films over and over again. Subsuming the legacy of Mohammad into the contemporary vision of Makhmalbaf, he offers up a peculiarly exegetical vision of cinephilia in which the screenplay is foregrounded as a devotional text that requires repeated recitation and ceremonial invocation: “I read it and it brings calm to my heart. It says the things I wish I could express.” After all, he first meets Mahrokh when reading the screenplay of The Cyclist – we never see an actual movie theatre – while his body language, posture and gait all revolve around his ability to take a screenplay out of his pocket at a moment’s notice. As with any religious or revelatory text, too, cinema both provides him with his own voice and subsumes him into a wider sense of communion and collectivity. Towards the end, he asks Kiarostami “If you could give a message to Mr. Makhmalbaf…tell him The Cyclist is a part of me” and finally admits that, if he were in a Makhmalbaf film, the one part he would really like to play is “my own.”
In one of the most beautiful endings I have ever seen, Kiarostami fulfils just that wish by introducing Sabzian to Makhmalbaf in the immediate aftermath of the trial, and then following them, in his car, as they ride a motorcycle through the streets of Tehran to the Ahankhan household, where Sabzian presents the family with a bouquet of flowers as a request for forgiveness. In a beautiful contingency, the sound cuts out at just this moment, allowing Sabzian to retreat to some deep and traumatically wonderful cinephilic privacy as the full panoramic mobility of Tehran becomes available to us for the first and last time in the film, and Kiarostami captures the cinephilic potentiality of automobile and mass transit more potently than at any other point in his career. Whether or not this lapse in sound was fortuitous or planned – “we can’t redo this shot” – the effect is to paint cinephilia as a kind of miracle.
More to the point, Kiarostami himself gives Sabzian a cinephilic miracle, or establishes the conditions and coordinates within which a cinephilic miracle might occur. The fact that the miracle eventuates – and the way it eventuates – makes for one of the great film endings and the one sequence that presents an utterly unmediated authenticity, reminding me, in a strange way, of the end of City Lights in its sense of a tremulous connection that can only be consummated in and through celluloid. Even if it were rehearsed and staged, Sabzian’s passion for Makhmalbaf couldn’t be faked, even as this also represents the first and last point at which Sabzian is fully incorporated into Makhmalbaf’s cinematic universe as well, in a kind of abbreviated sequel to The Cyclist. As real footage and reconstruction finally converge into a new kind of cinephilic truth, so do directing and acting, until it feels like Kiarostami has not merely given Sabzian the experience of acting in his film but somehow directing as well, as if taking his cues from Sabzian’s own observation that “Playing the part of a director is a performance in itself…To me, that is acting.” In other words, Close-Up astonishingly manages to be the film that Sabzian was trying to make, trying to inhabit, trying to live, when pretending to be Makhmalbaf – and to watch it is to see him come alive, and learn to live again, through the raptures of cinephilia. No more can we ask from any film.