Jean-Luc Godard is attributed with a quote from one of his films, “Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.” Film is made to suspend your disbelief, and yet in your mind, a part of you is accepting what you’re seeing to be true.
In Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 film Close-Up, a man named Hossain Sobzian is arrested for impersonating an Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and convincing the Ahankhah family into accepting him into their home, loaning him money, and believing they would become part of his next film. He is soon found out to be a phony, and during Sobzian’s trial, the judge asks him just how far he intended to take this act: “As far as they were prepared to go.”
Close-Up is a movie about a fraud, as it is a documentary based on actual events in Iran in 1989. But it is a fraud in itself. Kiarostami blends documentary scenes with staged reenactments of the events starring the actual people involved. But as the film gets increasingly beguiling, suspenseful, and cinematic, Close-Up blurs the lines between fiction and reality. It’s a fraud we’re prepared to accept as far as Kiarostami is willing to go.
When Close-Up begins, a journalist is explaining to a cop what he suspects Sabzian of doing as they travel on their way to apprehend him, an easy way to get the story out of the way, even before we’ve begun to see it. “You’re a journalist? I took you for a cop,” the driver says, and already there’s a sense of blurred perspectives. But Kiarostami is going for more than that. These scenes of driving in a car, asking directions, making small talk, and eventually kicking an aerosol can down the road just to watch it roll: they’re specifically mundane in a way that resembles documentary realism without trying to be.
Once Sabzian is arrested and in jail, we get moments of bureaucracy as Kiarostami tries to secure a permit to film the trial, but we also get intimate, honest moments straight from Sabzian that feel as real as anything. Captured in tight, unflinching close-ups during the trial, Sabzian bares his soul and his “interest” in cinema. Sabzian explains how films have made him feel closer to his personality than during his intermittent jobs in the real world, and how in portraying the part of a director, we feel empathy for his desire to be admired and to want to make conversation.
The intriguing rub is that Kiarostami presumably scripted some of Sabzian’s in-court testimony. When one of the family members accuses Sabzian of playing yet another role in order to win sympathy, he essentially is. But we’ve already seen these people “act” in the reenactments, and whether this is a performance or a fraud doesn’t change how we pity the character. Part of the film’s beauty is that as Close-Up goes on, this distinction between what is “staged” and what is “honest” gets increasingly elliptical.
Close-Up was not the first film to recreate real moments for use in a documentary. Keith Phipps points out in his 2002 A.V. Club review that the film works as a kind of Thin Blue Line in reverse. Close-Up clouds the mystery rather than solving it.” But it effectively introduced Kiarostami and Iranian cinema to the Western world, and his influence can be felt in documentary and narrative features alike. The dramatized scenes of genocide in Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing obscure the line between cinema and disturbing reality. In Richard Linklater’s Bernie, the on-camera testimonies of real people who knew the protagonist are blended seamlessly with the actors, calling attention to the story’s seemingly superficial qualities and the character’s good nature.
In fact, the film Close-Up most closely resembles is one of Kiarostami’s own. Though Close-Up shares the signature driving shots found within all his films, it’s his 2010 film Certified Copy that applies Close-Up’s ideas into an entirely fictional narrative. William Shimell and Juliette Binoche play a writer and one of his fans talking, wandering through Tuscany, and admiring works of art. Binoche reveals that one of the paintings is actually a forgery, but millions admire its beauty all the same. As they continue walking, the two suddenly seem to be living an alternate reality in which they are unhappily married. The whole first half of the film is a lie, a forgery, or a fraud. Kiarostami revokes what we think we know about the characters to make a beguiling paradox of a movie.
Close-Up’s finale pulls a similar trick that makes the distinction between reality and fiction notably ambiguous. Sabzian has just been let out of prison, and in a token of good faith, the real Makhmalbaf arrives to greet him such that they can both visit and apologize to the family they wronged. In a poignant, pitiable moment, Sabzian weeps, but in doing so disrupts the audio equipment in such a way that the sound intermittently cuts out. Is this a “real” moment, or is it Kiarostami intentionally calling attention to the equipment that helps make this moment cinema?
In Close-Up’s final shot, Kiarostami catches Sabzian in a freeze-frame, an abrupt, eternally frozen moment in time that nods to the French New Wave and the filmmakers like Godard who suspected cinema’s limits but knew it to be a fraud worth admiring. 30 years after that movement began, Kiarostami realized it.