I have seen several films in recent years where the line between documentary and narrative feature are blurred. I think my first foray into the format was 2011’s Richard Linklater film Bernie. In fact a lot of Linklater’s work has a documentary type feel (Boyhood, the Before Trilogy). This year alone there are a few films that are changing it up on us (The Tale and American Animals to start). It was my understanding that this was a fairly new phenomena. I was wrong.
In the 1990 film Close-Up (that came out 30 years ago), written and directed by Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, there is no line between documentary and narrative. The film is a re-enactment of actual events, and its stars are the real people from those events. A lot of the film feels observational, as if we are getting a glimpse into the true events themselves. But we aren’t. This has all been staged.
The story is fairly straightforward, yet strange. A poor man named Hossain Sabzian impersonates a famous yet reclusive director (Mohsen Makhmalbaf) to the wealthy Ahankhah family over the period of a week. The family grows suspicious over that week, and then has the man arrested for fraud. We see parts of that story interspersed with the trial of the Sabzian. There are also a few interviews with the main players throughout as well, as a way to flesh out exactly what happened.
What makes the film interesting, other than that all the major players are acting as themselves, is the complete confusion as to why it happened at all. The Ahankhah family seems to believe robbery was the eventual endgame and motivation. They are understandably hurt and angry that their trust was betrayed. But, other than some cab fare, Sabzian took nothing from them. So their case against him is pretty light.
Sabzian, for his part, doesn’t fully understand why he did it either. This makes him seem like he is hiding something in his trial, because an explanation for his actions is not forthcoming. It is fascinating to hear him talk about his thoughts and motivations for why he did what he did and opens up whole conversations about the people we idolize and why, celebrity culture, respect for fellow humans, etc. There are long stretches of the film where he is just talking about these things without specifically addressing them that are probably why the film is on the Sight and Sound list. Lots of movies try to be about these things, but very few get under these issues quite like this one.
The film is surprisingly even handed despite it being clear who is in the right and who is in the wrong. It does make the point that being right doesn’t mean you should be without compassion and understanding, and that sometimes being wrong is punishment enough.
This is a film that has a lot to say, but I am not sure that there is much more that I can say about it. It’s a small story, told in an interesting way, that packs a surprisingly emotional punch at the end. If what I have written here intrigues you, then it’s definitely worth a watch. If not, then this film probably isn’t for you.