aka Nema-ye Nazdik
The Closed Doors

Persian language. Iran, 1990. Unrated. 100 minutes.

Cast: Hossain Sabzian, Hossain Farazmand, Abolfazl Ahankhah, Mehrdad Ahankhah, Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Writer: Abbas Kiarostami
Cinematographer: Ali Reza Zarrindast
Producer: Ali Reza Zarrin
Director: Abbas Kiarostami


Grade: A- Review by Jeff Vorndam

Forget being John Malkovich, try being Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Abbas Kiarostami, the internationally-renowned director of A Taste of Cherry, creates a fascinating blend of documentary and fiction in Close-Up, a film that was not shown in the United States until just last year (it may pop up in selected cities this year, so be on the lookout). All the actors in the film play themselves, and all the scenes are recreations of actual events, except for a few that unfold "live." It's difficult to distinguish between what's real from what's written. The line between cinema and life is erased, not just for the audience but for the characters/people in the film as well.

The story is about a shiftless printer's assistant, Hossain Sabzian, who is also a film lover and huge fan of popular Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf (director of Gabbeh and The Cyclist). Sabzian is riding the bus one day reading a copy of the novel The Cyclist when he meets Mrs. Ahankhah, a fan of the film. Sabzian tells her that he is Makhmalbaf, the author of the book and film. She's a bit surprised that a famous director is riding public transportation, but Sabzian explains that this is how he finds his subjects for film and that art must spring from life. Posing as Makhmalbaf, Sabzian visits the Ahankhah family several times over the next couple of weeks. He flatters them by saying he wants to use their house for his next film and their sons as his actors. He even obtains a substantial amount of money from them, ostensibly to prepare for the film. Mr. Ahankhah has his suspicions though, especially when a magazine photo shows a younger darker-haired Makhmalbaf. He invites an ambitious journalist friend (Hossain Farazmand) over, who confirms that Sabzian is indeed an impostor. The police come to arrest Sabzian, while Farazmand takes several pictures for his upcoming article: "Bogus Makhmalbaf Arrested." Kiarostami intersperses these scenes throughout the film, which does not progress chronologically. They are re-enactments, and they are the only re-enactments in the film.

The rest of the film is documentary (or what passes for documentary when the subjects know a camera is on them). Kiarostami obtains permission from the court to film the trial (Sabzian is being tried for fraud) and records the testimony of the Ahankhah's yougest son Merhdad and Hossain Sabzian. Occasionally, Kiarostami interrupts to ask a few questions himself (apparently in Iran this is quite legal). One of the fascinating aspects of this movie is the glimpse of the Iranian legal system. There is a judge but no lawyers, and both sides tell their stories themselves. Over the course of the trial, Sabzian is questioned persistently about his reasons for impersonating Makhmalbaf. Sabzian says he has always felt like a nobody, someone you wouldn't think twice about after meeting him, much less approach on the street. He feels empowered when he's Makhmalbaf–people respect him, they listen to his every word as if genius flows from his lips. Not only is it an ego trip, but it's a way of making his obsession a reality. Sabzian loves cinema. He watches films over and over again, but he doesn't experience film until he pretends he is a filmmaker. Ironically, with this movie Sabzian has finally become the subject of a film. His reality has transmutated into celluloid for the whole world to see.

Close-Up is densely packed with ideas and themes, so much so that repeat viewings are probably necessary to appreciate the depth of Kiarostami's gaze. What impresses throughout the film is Kiarostami's evident humanism. Sabzian is ultimately a sympathetic character because he loves movies for their ability to speak to him, the average Mo(hammed) on the street. Sabzian's employment problems and poverty even provide a subtle social critique. The ending of the film, when Sabzian at last meets the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf, is a highly emotional experience because his shame is so authentic and Makhmalbaf is kind and not too reproachful. Sound fades out intermittently in these final scenes, when Makhmalbaf's microphone goes on the blink. Kiarostami didn't have the ability to reshoot the scenes because Sabzian could only meet his idol for the first time once. Kiarostami also chose not to redub the sound which reminds us that we are not only watching a film, but watching life happen as well.

Close-Up shows how movies can affect our everyday lives. Sabzian's original impersonation was sparked by his love of film, and his intentions as Makhmalbaf were to make a film. The trial was affected by the filming taking place–certain revelations were brought about through Kiarostami's presence. The entire story inspired the very movie I just saw. A film about real life experiences inspired a real life experience which in turn inspired another film, and now I'm writing about that film!

Review © June 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 1991 Zeitgeist Films. All Rights Reserved.

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