At once funny and bittersweet the Iranian film Close-Up (on Facets Video) is a penetrating examination of celebrity and identity. In fact, in dealing with the nature of celebrity and the artificiality of cinema it may be the best one of its kind. Primarily it is about a man who was arrested for pretending to be a famous filmmaker so that he could feel important and get the kind of respect that he never received in his normal life.
The basic story is that back about 1990 a young Iranian man named Hossein Sabzian approached a well-to-do family pretending to be the world famous filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (who recently directed Kandahar) and fooled them into thinking that he was going to use their house to shoot his latest film. But he could only deceive them for so long and eventually he was found out and arrested. Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami read about the incident and was so fascinated that he decided to get a camera and a film crew and pursue the case through court.
Using a combination of fiction and documentary Kiarostami films Mr. Sabzian in and out of prison and at his trial. What we learn is that he had no intention of fraud – as the bilked family insisted – but instead just wanted to add a bit of dignity to his life.
To those who don't know anything about Iranian cinema or the celebrity status of Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami this film may be hard to follow or completely understand. But put in another context it is easier to understand how important both of these directors are. In an article a few years back film critic Godfrey Chelshire asked us to imagine a similar parallel with Jean-Luc Godard making a film about a guy who pretending to be Francois Truffaut. For further clarity I suggest imagining if someone was accused of fraud for attempting to be Oliver Stone and Martin Scorsese made a documentary about it.
Mr Sabzian seems to be somewhat of a pathetic figure but he is also a bit of a compelling romantic. He claims that he identified with one of Makhmalbaf's films titled The Cyclist so strongly that he felt it was part of him. How he made the jump from admiration to impersonation is certainly odd – but therein lies the romantic concept of the film. He meant no harm to anyone and was naïve enough to think that he could get away with it for a while.
Close-Up is less entertaining than it is an intellectual pursuit because it is more about why Mr Sabzian committed fraud than it is about how he did. Director Kiarostami seems to accept the man's testimony at face value and in so doing let's the man's ideas about doing something for his love of art take center stage. It's as if Kiarostami wants us to conceive of a world in which innocuous pranks -- that provoke stimulating conversations about art and life -- could stand in for a world dominated by real crime.
Like a good number of Iranian films including Moment of Innocence by Mohsen Makhmalbaf and The Apple by Samira Makhmalbaf this film brilliantly blends fact and fiction in a cinéma-vérité and self-conscious fashion. Half of the movie is documentary footage and the other half is recreated fictional scenes in which each of the people (all non-actors) play themselves. In this way the film has a post-modern feel to it because everyone represents themselves.
The film is presented in 1:33 to one and the transfer is from a somewhat beat up print although it doesn't look bad. Some scratches are noticeable and clearly the film has not been restored. The colors are flat and dark but since most of it is a cinéma-vérité-type documentary shot on 16mm that is to be expected. There is a noticeable difference between the documentary and the fiction sections.
Sound is okay. A lot of the dialogue is recorded one-to-one meaning there is no post dub work so some dialogue isn't too clear. There are a good number of mistakes and sound-outs too but that is all from the original film.
The only extra on the DVD is a 9-minute interview with director Abbas Kiarostami, which is rather insightful about his reasons for making the film. He claims that due to the fascinating subject matter this is the favorite of his films. There are eight chapters and dialogue is in Farsi with English subtitles.
This is a fascinating and investigative docu-drama about fraud and celebrity in Iran. It moves along slowly but is involving due to the subject matter and the underlying mystery of what motivated the main character to attempt such an odd crime. The disc looks fair and sounds good and there is only one extra but none of this belies the fact that the film is one of the best ever made on the subject of what people will do in the name of their love of art.