The Pathos of Deceit By a Victim Of Longing - "Close-Up" Review

By Stephen Holden The New York Times

In one film after another, the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami twists around the equation that the author Neal Gabler calls "Life: The Movie" to make films whose aesthetic might be described as "The Movie: Life." Mr. Kiarostami's films frequently feature non-actors playing themselves in un-glamorized reconstructions of actual events. And in his brilliant, knotty 1990 film "Close-Up," which has its New York theatrical premiere today at the Screening Room, those reconstructions are seamlessly embedded in a documentary about the trial of Hossein Sabzian, a young man arrested on charges of fraud.

"Close-Up" is directed in a radically drab cinema verite style that helps blur any difference between what is real and what is reconstructed. The movie is not always easy to watch. In one scene, the camera follows the course of a kicked piece of trash for a few seconds that seem nearly endless.

But if, on the surface, the movie appears to epitomize crude, seat-of-your-pants filmmaking, the raw aesthetic of "Close-Up," which is not rated, is really one of its strengths. For like other Kiarostami films, it goes to risky extremes to remind us that what we are seeing is a movie.

Toward the end of the film, as the director and his cinematographer and sound engineer follow Mr. Sabzian in a post-trial sequence, their audio equipment malfunctions, and as the sound comes in and out, half of what we see is silent. The director's insistence on making us aware of filmmaking technology is part of a broader strategy to force us to contemplate the basic experience of moviegoing.

The serious, far-reaching joke of "Close-Up" is that Mr. Sabzian's fraud was his impersonation of a successful filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. By pretending to be a director interested in filming the Ahankhahs, a well-to-do-family, Mr. Sabzian was able insinuate his way into their lives and feel like a Somebody.

It all began by chance, when he was reading Mr. Makhmalbaf's book "The Cyclist," while sitting next to Mrs. Ahankhah on a bus. After they struck up a conversation, he impulsively said he was the author, and one thing led to another. His deceit in some ways parallels John Guare's "Six Degrees of Separation," in which a young man of meager means and dazzling charm convinces a prosperous Manhattan couple that he is the prep school-educated son of the actor Sidney Poitier.

After they find him out, the Ahankhahs accuse Mr. Sabzian of fraud because he borrowed money from them. Since he has thoroughly inspected their home in preparation for a film he says he is preparing, in which they will appear, they assume he has been planning to rob them.

But at the trial, it becomes evident that Mr. Sabzian had no plans to steal from his new friends. A dreamer who worships art, he insists that he pretended to be Mr. Makhmalbaf because it gave him status and self-esteem. At first, Mehrdad, one of the Ahankhahs' sons, doesn't believe him and accuses him of playing another role. But as Mr. Sabzian abjectly pleads his innocence to the judge and apologizes to the Ahankhahs, he cuts a compellingly waifish figure.

It is Mr. Sabzian's poignancy that makes "Close-Up" much more than a clever reflection on film-versus-life as an endless hall of mirrors. A transcendent humanist in the tradition of the Italian neo-realists and the Indian director Satyajit Ray, Mr. Kiarostami has made a film that looks into the heart of a man accused of a crime and, instead of evil, discovers only sweetness, longing and a sad confusion.

Originally Published December 31, 1999

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