Thursday, June 19, 2014

Close-up (1990)

They all make films based on real events, don't they? But you can bet your bottom dollar, you haven't seen anything quite like this. It doesn't get more real than Abbas Kiarostami's "Close-Up" (1990), a rare film, very unique in its intent and format that has to be seen to be believed. Not only does it blur the line between fiction and reality, but it literally obliterates any distinction between the two in a manner so seamless, that Kiarostami himself becomes the great deceiver, the kind his protagonist Hossain Sabzian (starring as himself) is.

"Close-Up" is an up, close and personal look at the real life case of Hossain Sabzian, an ordinary man, an ardent lover of art and film who passed himself off as popular filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf to the Ahankhah family. Posing as the director, he expressed interest in using the abode of the Ahankhahs as his next filming location, while also promising their sons roles in the film. Subsequently his game was up and he faced arrest and a trial. 

Now here's the big one. All of the above characters involved in the story are portrayed by their real selves, names unchanged! What's more, Kiarostami appears as himself, films the actual trial and also recreates some of the events prior to Hossain's arrest using these very people as actors! So here is a recreation of real events, that is NOT stylized, that is stripped of all romanticism and is delivered to you in its raw form. Well...almost!

The actual trial filmed is presented in a coarse, grainy camera footage, which initially comes across as a stylistic choice, because the acting itself did not differ from the re-enacted events that are filmed with a crisper, cleaner film quality. But then again, they were not acting after all! Or were they, since they knew the trial was being filmed? So where does the acting end and where does it begin? "Close-up" is a perfect example of meta cinema, yet one in which one can't really tell if its a documentary or a docu-drama or if there's a film within a film or a reality within a film, or a film within a reality, or all of it! But classification of any sort is pointless, really. What we have at hand is a minimalist thriller that's also a complex, layered, existential drama with a very identifiable issue of the human condition at its core.

Not just its protagonist, but essentially everyone involved is trying to make their presence felt, and establish some sort of identity for themselves, for which Sabzian's case provides the perfect opportunity, even for Sabzian himself! The journalist Farazmand, who gets to cover the case thinks that this case could be his career defining, crowning moment, as he explains in the excellent opening scene. He knows that this is the story that could get him his recognition, much like famous journalist Oriana Fallaci whom he idolizes. 

He explains to the cab driver that Fallaci has international recognition for she has the nose for sniffing out stories that nobody else knows about; something of her own, something that distinguishes her from the others. It's all about a quest to become somebody from nobody. Not surprising, that to achieve this, Farazmand goes through a lot of struggle. He has to shell out and even borrow some money from the plaintiffs in order to pay his cab fare, all for the sake of this one sensational news item that could perhaps catapult him to stardom. He even struggles to find a tape recorder, as he requests for it from door to door. This shows how struggle is inherently a huge part of his sorry life.

Even the man at the helm, Kiarostami, apparently left all his current projects when he heard of this case, to film "Close-up", since the subject caught his interest. This was the film that got Kiarostami more attention in the West; his defining film, that made him much more internationally recognized. Thus, both Kiarostami and Farazmand got their watershed moments with "Close-up" and the case at its center. In one scene, we see Kiarostami trying to prepone the trial date to suit his needs! Could it be deliberate on Kiarostami's part to include that bit, to show that in a way, even he was being selfish to some extent?

Mr. Ahankhah is quite right then, when he tells Kiarostami, "Everyone who has become involved in our case so far has tried to use the situation to his own advantage"! But what about the Ahankhahs themselves? Hasn't the case been a blessing in disguise, that they all got to appear in an Abbas Kiarostami film? In a way Hossain Sabzian, while pretending to be a filmmaker and promising them roles, eventually ended up getting them all a role in a real film! It's unimaginable, the compromise it must've taken for these people to meet and act with the man who tricked them! But then again, maybe they were all in it for something. To be famous? For money? For recognition? However, the claim of still being somebody is made, anyway, as one of Ahankhah's sons complains, "He (Farazmand) portrayed us as simple people..but we are not".

A tin can is kicked randomly. It endlessly rolls across the road, and finally stops at some point. But it is in great danger of being kicked again, and it does! The next kick happens when the kicker finds a tape recorder that he desperately needs! This next kick decides its fate. The can keeps getting kicked from place to place, perhaps symbolic of the fate of the strugglers in the film; a never ending journey that may perhaps never attain stability and satisfaction.

Sabzian, at the beginning of his trial is in danger of incarceration. Yet he says he would let Kiarostami film his trial. Why? Because they are his audience! Imprisonment or not, at least via Kiarostami's film, he gets his few minutes of fame that he so aspired for and he can ensure that his voice is heard. This is where the social commentary aspect of "Close-up" sets in. Poverty and desperation drives good men like Sabzian to follow the path of deception, merely to command some respect, morality be damned! Sabzian, however, makes some profound points in his statement. He speaks about a dream of equality across social classes and a lesson in humility. The kind of world he imagines doesn't, and perhaps may never, exist. You cannot have a popular filmmaker mingle with other ordinary beings as equals. 

The icing on the cake is that strange sequence in which the real Mohsen Makhmalbaf comes face to face with Sabzian. Does Kiarostami set up a surprise meet between the director and Sabzian, as a kind gesture for the latter? Or is it to film a juicy climax scene for his own product? One great act (pun intended), two intentions, one rooted in reality, the other in cinema. The audio suddenly goes bad during this time. Perhaps, the microphone on Makhmalbaf's lapel malfunctions, or perhaps the choice of sporadic muted moments was intentional. We may never know. Behold, the deliberately distorted vision and sound in this scene, as the audio feed gets abruptly muted, while the the real and the fake Mohsen are filmed through a cracked windshield!

As a cinematic experience, the film surely sucks you in. Kiarostami knows drama very well and practically owns his audience for those 90 odd minutes. Despite its minimalism, Kiarostami commands your attention in the entire duration of the film, as there is constantly something happening on screen. Although filmed as a raw documentary/docudrama, Kiarostami adds some naturalistic humour to bring a smile to your face. Like for instance when Farazmand exclaims as he approaches the Ahankhah house, "How strange that my best story should take place at a dead end". It is also commendable that despite being non-professionals, all the actors deliver convincing performances, especially Hossain Farazmand as the anxious reporter and of course, Hossain Sabzian in the lead role.

Further interesting bits make for some ironic humour; specially the court judge's confident statement, "...and I don't see anything worth filming"! Bet he had to eat his words upon witnessing the final product. This is Kiarostami's magnum opus; one bold, daring meta film that is his own, as he changes the very definition of cinema. It may not cater to everyone's cinematic taste, but "Close-up" deserves all the accolades it has been receiving from film circles and critics.

Score: 10/10

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