Close-Up was released in 1990 and was directed by Abbas Kiarostami. It was released by Criterion on DVD and Blu-Ray on June 22, 2010 as spine #519. He also directed Taste of Cherry (spine #45), Certified Copy (spine #612), and Like Someone in Love (spine #708). His film The Traveler is also included in the Close-Up release.
The story of Close-Up is the story of the making of Close-Up. It begins with a troubled young man named Hossein Sabzian, who impersonated the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf for a family of cinéastes. After Sabzian was discovered and arrested, Kiarostami heard about the story and rushed to begin making a film about it. The result is a blend of documentary footage and recreations, the latter featuring everyone involved in the events playing themselves.
You know that old Voltaire quote, “If God did not exist, we would have to invent Him”? Well, if Close-Up did not exist, cinema would have to invent it. This is a film that seems intrinsically tied to its medium — it’s as though one could not exist without the other. This is a film about cinematic depiction, and about the assumptions we make when we see a film depict something. We watch films with an understanding that nothing we’re seeing is “real”; those people are actors, the setting is just a set, none of this actually happened. With Close-Up, Kiarostami challenges that idea, placing documentary footage (“reality”) side-by-side with recreations (“fiction”) and asking us to reconsider our definitions of each. The film implies that the documentary scenes taking place in the courtroom during Sabzian’s trial are irrevocably tainted by the very presence of the cameras, and that therefore they can’t be considered any more “real” than anything else. Meanwhile, the staged recreations feature the real people involved in the events in the real places where they took place. Why do we immediately think of this as unreal? Is it possible that this is much closer to a depiction of reality than the ostensibly “real-life” scenes of the trial? The nature of this medium requires these ideas to be addressed, and Close-Up seems the definitive exploration of cinema’s tenuous relationship with reality.
More directly, though, this film is concerned with identity. It’s about a man pretending to be someone else, and how disingenuous such a thing may actually be. By having everyone play themselves, Kiarostami confronts the distinction between who we present ourselves as and who we are. Sabzian’s story is already ripe for discussion of that concept, and Close-Up is designed to make it much harder to come to a conclusion. We are made to consider how much of any person’s life is spent pretending to be someone else. With this in mind, was Sabzian’s crime that unusual? Is it any more dishonest for the family he tricked to play themselves in this film? Can they truly claim to have been one-hundred percent honest in their interactions with him, or with anyone for that matter? These are the questions that Close-Up introduces, and in a way that only a film could accomplish. It’s not a unique work in cinematic history (F for Fake, for instance, deals with many of the same issues), but it does what it does so successfully that it’s hard to imagine film without it.
The supplements on this disc are by and large standard Criterion fare. You get documentaries and interviews, a commentary and a booklet, the basics. But it wouldn’t be a Criterion release without something really unexpected and vital, and Close-Up has two special features that fit the bill. The first is Kiarostami’s debut feature film, The Traveler. Sticking an entire extra film into a release is the kind of above-and-beyond thing we’ve come to expect from them, especially since The Traveler (to the best of my knowledge) isn’t available anywhere else. More importantly, The Traveler is explicitly referenced in Close-Up: During his trial, Sabzian compares himself to the unlucky protagonist of that film. Allowing us to see The Traveler drives home the contradictory nature of Close-Up; because it exists for the viewer in reality, Sabzian’s reference to it becomes an even more effective point of cross-over between reality and fiction.
The second noteworthy feature is a documentary called “Close-up” Long Shot, which profiles Sabzian six years after the film’s release. In a way, this is something of a sequel to Close-Up, though it’s far rougher and less cinematic. It’s heartbreaking to see Sabzian in such bad shape, particularly with regard to his mental health. This is a necessary inclusion, but still an uncomfortable one to watch.
Cinema needs Close-Up in its canon. It challenges the medium’s most basic tenants in provocative fashion, defying preconceived definitions of “fiction” or “non-fiction.” After reading this, you may be asking yourself if what Sabzian did was all that bad. After watching the film, you’ll be wondering if he was deceiving the family at all. Rarely do we see films so radical in form, and Close-Up’s experiment is a rousing success.
Criterion Grade: B
Film Grade: A+