Abbas Kiarostami's 1990 film, Close Up is a fascinating picture in more than one way. Not only is it interesting to watch and wholly engrossing, but it's an entirely unique production in that it is basically a documentary film, but at the same time, because of how it's structured, it's also a traditional narrative film. It sort of exists on a plane of its own. The picture follows an Iranian man named Hossein Sabzian, a commoner who decides to impersonate a fairly well known filmmaker named Mohsen Makhmalbaf after meeting a woman on a bus who notices he's reading one of Makhmalbaf's screenplays. When she tells him that her sons are fans of Makhmalbaf's films, he passes himself off as the director and offers her the screenplay as a gift. As one thing leads to another, the lies begin to pile up and before you know if, Sabzian is playing Makhmalbaf in this woman's family home and they all believe that he's preparing them for a part in his upcoming film. When they find out what has happened and that they've been had, the family takes him to court and the film, in turn, shows us his trial as filmed by Kiarostami.
In an interesting twist, all of the principal participants in this real life story play themselves here, so what we watch on screen is the actual Hossein Sabzian playing Hossein Sabzian. As the film moves on, we get to know him and understand why he's doing this. We learn that his motivation isn't to use the family for food and money, though he was a poor man unsure what to do with his life, but basically to hide from real life. We learn how he saw films from the likes of Makhmalbaf and many of his contemporaries, came to admire the men who made them, and in turn want to have what they have - not just money and success and material possessions but the ability, even power, to communicate to people on such a broad level.
Abbas Kiarostami is working here not with a group of professionally trained actors but with an interesting mix of people from a couple of different social classes and from different backgrounds. On paper, this sounds like a disaster and it's easy to imagine that Close Up would feel awkward, forced and phony like a bad television reenactment but somehow he manages to coax realism out of his cast. Obviously no one is more familiar with the story than those who lived it and so that sense of familiarity has to count for something but somehow the film manages to really suck us into this otherwise fairly goofy incident. With Iran being the country that it is and ruled by a fairly uncompassionate government, you might expect the film to be either a work of political protest or, on the flip side of that coin, maybe a piece of pro-Iranian propaganda but that doesn't seem to be on the agenda here. Yes, politics do come into play in so much as the film is set in a politically charged country but the film is more a look at the society of the country rather than the officials who run it. That said, society and politics are always intrinsically linked.
As the movie plays out, you can't help but wonder what it was like for the principal players to essentially relive their experiences for Kiarostami's camera. There had to have been some very strange emotions going back and forth, particularly on the part of Sabzian. Obviously a fair bit out of touch with his reality, he does actually manage to get his wish with this film in that, hey, here is up, on the screen just like he'd pretended. The film isn't short on irony in that regard, but that doesn't stop it from looking under the surface and questioning us, asking us why we want to watch movies, why we yearn to escape, what we expect out of film and the film winds up being not about style or flash but about emotion, human feeling, and how certain aspects of any society can often times lead more to suffering than anything else. The film, through its story rather than through its style, is able to make an emotional connection with the audience but it stops short of giving us any sort of definitive statement on Sabzian's actions. Rather, it lets us make up our own minds as to whether we should pity him, laugh at him, or chastise him for what he did - it does, however, force us to think about how and why Sabzian got to this point in his life in the first place.
Close Up arrives on Blu-ray in a very nice 1.33.1 fullframe AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfer. Detail is generally strong from start to finish and there are no problems with compression artifacts or pesky edge enhancement. Ringing and aliasing are pretty much non-existent and while some mild print damage is noticeable here and there, it's never overpowering or distracting. A natural coat of film grain is present throughout the film, but not at the cost of clarity or detail. This is a very film-like transfer. Colors look natural, skin tones look very realistic, and contrast appears to be properly set resulting in a very consistent and strong image which makes it easy to overlook the occasional blemish or source related defect.
The uncompressed 1152 Kbps 48kHz 24-bit PCM Mono Farsi sound mix on this Blu-ray, which comes with optional English subtitles, sounds pretty good despite the occasional pop in the mix and the sporadic moments where a bit of mild hiss creeps into the track. You probably won't even notice these if you're not looking for them, as generally things are well balanced and quite clear. There are drop outs in spots that may or may not have been intentional on the part of the filmmakers, but generally speaking the movie sounds fine.
Criterion have included a very impressive array of extras for this release, starting with an excellent audio commentary track that comes courtesy of authors Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who co-wrote a book on Abbas Kiarostami. This track does a great job of explaining the history behind this film, discussing the real life events that inspired it, and in explaining its cultural and political importance within not only the confines of Iranian film but international cinema as a whole. The two commentators make for a good team, with Rosenbaum offering critical and technical analysis and Saeed-Vafa providing most of the social and political context. Between the two of them, we wind up with a fascinating and well rounded dissection, critique and analysis of the film that really leaves no stone uncovered.
Interestingly enough, Criterion have also included The Traveler, which is director Abbas Kiarostami's first feature film. This seventy three minute picture is presented in 1080i high definition with a Dolby Digital Mono sound mix. Made in 1974, it's an interesting story about the lengths that a kid will go to in order to make it to a sporting event. It doesn't have the same sort of impact as Close Up but it actually ties in well with the feature.
There's also a forty-five minute long featurette included on this disc entitled Close-up Long Shot, which catches up with Hossein Sabzian, six years after the film was made. It's a fascinating look at what Sabzian went through and how Kiarostami's film would wind up changing his life in many ways once the world get to see it. Giving the director himself some screen time is a twenty-seven minute New Video Interview With Kiarostami in which the filmmaker discusses how and why he came to make this project and the impact that it has had on his career since and why he made the film using the techniques that we see employed in the feature. The disc's final featurette is A Walk With Kiarostami which is a 2003 documentary made by Iranian film professor Jamsheed Akrami who shot the documentary over a few days during a film festival that took place in Ireland. It's an interesting and somewhat intimate look at the director and how his work is represented internationally. Menus and chapter stops are included as well.
As is the norm with Criterion releases, this disc also comes with a full color booklet featuring an essay by film critic Godfrey Cheshire entitled Prison And Escape as well as production and DVD credits.
Criterion give Close Up the respect it deserves with this Blu-ray release. The transfer is very strong and while the audio isn't perfect, it's still pretty decent. The extras are both plentiful and interesting, even enlightening in spots, while the feature itself is quite fascinating not only from an artistic stand point but from a socio-political one as well. Highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.