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A Second Look: Abbas Kiarostami's 'Close-Up'

The 1990 film brings together two of the so-called Iranian New Wave's key figures, Kiarostami and filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose identity was stolen by a cinephile.

June 09, 2010|By Dennis Lim, Special to the Los Angeles Times

The Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, who turns 70 this month, was at the Cannes Film Festival recently with a movie that marked several firsts in a distinguished career. "Certified Copy," which will be released in the United States by IFC Films, is Kiarostami's first fiction feature to be shot outside Iran and his first with an internationally known star (Juliette Binoche, who won the best actress prize at Cannes).

At first glance, this multilingual two-hander set in picturesque Tuscany has little to do with the postmodern neorealism that Kiarostami honed in such films as "Taste of Cherry" (1997) and "The Wind Will Carry Us" (1999), which combine a humanistic attention to lived experience with a self-questioning approach to depicting reality. But as "Certified Copy" progresses, slipping irrevocably through the looking glass, it becomes yet another exploration of one of Kiarostami's favorite themes: the power of a common illusion, which is to say, of cinema itself.

Kiarostami's most complete — and most intricate — examination of this theme remains his 1990 film "Close-Up," issued in a two-disc DVD later this month by Criterion in both regular-definition and Blu-ray editions. Included on several critics' lists of the best films of the '90s (including Susan Sontag's), "Close-Up" is perhaps the emblematic work of the so-called Iranian New Wave, summing up its methods and preoccupations and also bringing together two of its key figures, Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf (the director of "A Moment of Innocence").

The critic Godfrey Cheshire, who has written extensively on Iranian cinema and contributed an essay to the Criterion DVD booklet, calls "Close-Up" a version of "The Bicycle Thief" in which what's stolen is not a bicycle but an identity. The film recounts the case of Hossein Sabzian, an out-of-work printer who passed himself off as Makhmalbaf to a middle-class Tehran family, the Ahankhahs, and promised to cast them in his next movie. After a few days, Sabzian's hosts — who have by then invited him into their home and even loaned him money — grow suspicious and alert the authorities.

Fittingly for a film about an impersonator, "Close-Up" is never quite what it seems to be. One might say that in Sabzian, Kiarostami found not just the subject but also the form for his movie. There is an aura of documentary, or at least docudrama, to the project, since all the involved parties — Sabzian, the family, the journalist who broke the story, Kiarostami and, in the emotional final sequence, Makhmalbaf — appear as themselves.

Some sequences are obviously reenacted, such as Sabzian's initial encounter with the family matriarch on a bus: She strikes up a conversation when she sees he is holding a copy of the published screenplay to "The Cyclist," a Makhmalbaf film, and — seemingly on impulse — he tells her that he wrote it.

The scenes of Sabzian's trial at first appear to be documentary footage, but it eventually becomes clear that the proceedings have been to an extent commandeered — or rather, directed — by Kiarostami. The director can be heard as an off-screen inquisitor posing questions to Sabzian, some of which break right through the fourth wall ("Aren't you acting for the camera right now?").

Kiarostami has said that the courtroom testimony was scripted but composed largely from Sabzian's own words. Eloquent and direct, these passages are the heart of the film, providing a window into the psyche of a complicated man and into the social and cultural reality of Iran, a little more than a decade after the Islamic revolution of 1979.

The Criterion edition includes a 45-minute documentary called "Close-Up Long Shot," made six years after "Close-Up" and featuring interviews with Sabzian and his acquaintances. The man who emerges here — unfiltered and unmoored from both the artifice and the humanity of Kiarostami's film — is no less introspective and philosophical than the Sabzian of "Close-Up," but his darker side is in plain view.

In "Close-Up," movies are both an obsession and a salvation for Sabzian: Explaining his attachment to the man he impersonated, Sabzian calls Makhmalbaf an artist who "spoke for me and depicted my suffering." But in the documentary, Sabzian's life story comes across as a cautionary tale on the perils of cinephilia, a mania that robbed him of his childhood and confused his identity. "I've never seen my life in focus," says the subject of "Close-Up," resorting to the cinematic terms he knows best. "It's always been a blurred image."

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