From the mid-1990s until his death in 2016, Abbas Kiarostami was widely regarded as one of the most original, innovative and important filmmakers around, an audacious, idiosyncratic artist with a profoundly humane but highly distinctive view of the world. Close-Up is often seen not only as a turning-point in the Iranian’s career – it cemented his confidence in blurring the distinction between ‘documentary’ and ‘fiction’ – but as the film most representative of his aims and achievements.
It could have been a straightforward record of the court case of an unemployed print worker accused of impersonating filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf with the intent of fraudulently obtaining money from a well-to-do family. But in relating the story of Hossein Sabzian’s encounter with the Ahankhahs, Kiarostami characteristically opts for anything but an obvious linear narrative. Mixing 16mm footage of the trial (in which Kiarostami himself seems to ask as many questions as the judge) with recreations of events performed by the family, Sabzian and others playing themselves, he fragments the story into diverse meandering strands that frequently frustrate expectations while still remaining intelligible and engrossing. ‘Important’ events may be left unseen; in their place, sequences in which nothing of any clear consequence happens. Re-enactments occur without giving away whose point of view they represent. The more ‘information’ we’re offered about the case, the more we come to realise that there are no easy answers to any of the questions being raised. The plot thickens – except that we do, eventually, understand that the accused, for all his strange, seemingly unmotivated deceptions, is undoubtedly a decent human being, worthy of our attention, sympathy and respect.
Though formally inventive, Close-Up confirms that its creator is no formalist. The film is driven both by deep, unsentimental compassion and by genuine philosophical curiosity; it explores the fraught relationships between truth and falsehood, film and ‘reality’, intention and action, and acknowledges, from start to finish, the role and responsibility of the director in his engagement with the people in his film. Also admirably typical of Kiarostami’s best work is his admission – indeed, insistence – that the film is incomplete until viewers respond by engaging with its artifice and actively using their imaginations. For Kiarostami, the unshown, the unsaid, the unknown were crucially important; meaning was inextricably linked to mystery.