‘Close Up’: Abbas Kiarostami’s Love Letter to Cinephiles

“For me, art is the experience of what you feel inside”

By the time Hossain Sabzian quietly utters these words in an open court, where is he is standing trial for fraud and attempted fraud, I couldn’t help but get teary-eyed because the words hit me a little too close for comfort. Here was a man, a miserable man struggling through his life, whose only respite was the movies. Isn’t it what cinema is for all of us who yearn to be as close to this magical medium as we possibly can? Cinema is our oxygen, our escape from the mundanities of everyday life, and our attempt to be part of something so full of verve and energy. And ‘Close Up’ is a reflection of that inimitable bond between cinema and cinephiles; Abbas Kiarostami, with his trademark signature of honesty, humility and empathy, crafts one of the finest works of art cinema has ever seen – a piece of cinema that, in so many ways, changed my life.

There is a very interesting backstory to ‘Close Up’. Kiarostami, who was well known in Iranian cinema by the late 80s, was actually working on another project when he read a newspaper article about Sabzian’s arrest for fraudulently posing as the Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Maqmalbaf and fooling an entire family. Apparently, the idea that a man would impersonate a filmmaker was indelibly fascinating to Kiarostami, who along with a barebones crew filmed a series of interviews with everyone associated with the case – the police, the journalist who broke the story, the family that was conned and Sabzian himself. He also requested and was granted permission for the trial to be recorded on camera. But no, this is not a documentary; Kiarostami rather adopts a more radical approach, seamlessly intertwining recorded footage with factual re-enactments played by the real characters in an attempt to portray the social stagnation in post-revolution Iran and also pose questions on the impact of cinema as an art form in the contemporary world. And the result is pure, unbridled magic.

Widely acknowledged as the spiritual heir to the “Satyajit Ray school of film-making” due to the inherent humanity in his cinema, Kiarostami, as usual doesn’t employ a complex, whirlwind plot. The premise is as simple as it gets –  a poor, married man meets an old lady in a bus and announces himself as the famous filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He invites himself over to her house, where he goes on to con her and her family into believing that they will be cast in his next movie and makes an attempt to extort money from them. If you are wondering if I’ve given too much away, fret not; even revealing the entire synopsis wouldn’t ruin your experience because Kiarostami isn’t interested in the minuscule factual details as much as he is in the characters, their intentions and their mindsets.

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Kiarostami opts for a very austere and minimalist cinematic style with ‘Close Up’, keeping the camera steady, handheld or otherwise, and letting the characters speak. And there is also the trademark Kiarostami car sequences, where the characters just converse as they drive around. In keeping with the documentary-esque feel of the movie, Kiarostami doesn’t edit or redo a lot of the sequences with technical glitches. A case in point – there is an entire sequence where the mic on one of the characters misbehaves and the audio keeps breaking up, and what he speaks remains unknown. While some might get miffed by such gaffes in a feature film, and some might even call it pretentious, Kiarostami obviously is not aiming for pretension. There is a real life unfolding through his lens, with all its pains and triumphs; so, what if we can’t hear a little bit!

As many of you might be aware, Abbas Kiarostami passed away this year in July. And just a few days later in a tribute at the New York School of Visual Arts, Martin Scorsese spoke about Kiarostami and his cinema. And when he mentioned ‘Close Up’, his eyes lit up and a faint smile appeared on his face. It is quite impossible to put that emotion into words, but it perfectly encapsulates the feelings of a true cinephile towards the movie, Scorsese being one of Hollywood’s most eclectic cinephiles. It isn’t ostensibly quite hard to imagine why a man would decide to impersonate a popular figure like Makhmalbaf – money, of course. But, that isn’t Sabzian’s biggest motivation. Of course, being poor and having to look after a family, money always helps but that isn’t why he does it. And to understand why, we might need to reflect on what cinema means for each of us. To me, cinema defines my existence and the proximity to cinematic art is the closest I can ever get to ultimate greatness. And while I watch movies and write about them in my attempt to be close to the art, Sabzian decided go a step further; he decided that impersonation of his favorite filmmaker was the best way to experience the magic of cinema. And while he is undoubtedly in the wrong, the movie-lover within each of us would find it difficult not to empathize with him.

Cinema brings out emotions and feelings within us that we never even knew existed. A true admirer of the medium watches cinema not only as a source of intellectual awakening, but also for emotional enlightenment. Cinema is the fodder for our soul; our way of bringing some semblance of magic into our fast paced and often miserable lives. The great Roger Ebert once said that lest we “go to the movies” in one way or the other, our minds would rot away, and I couldn’t agree more. As cinephiles, we understand the magic of the movies and how important it is to us. And the same goes for Sabzian; he is one of us, a lonely man being slowly devoured by the calamity of circumstance, whose only respite is cinema. Hussain Sabzian loved movies and he loved Makhmalbaf, and when met with the opportunity to actually become his idol, he jumped at it, as any of us might have done. For the first time in life, this perennial nobody became something of worth, and commanded respect that he had never experienced before. And above all, he got as close to the craft of cinema as a cinephile could ever get – isn’t that the ultimate dream for all of us!

And ultimately, this is what Kiarostami mirrors, the angst of a cinephile living in a repressed social and cultural milieu. And it is hard not to be affected by this poignant and profound evocation of cinematic passion; the scene where Sabzian finally meets the real Makhmalbaf and breaks down in tears is one of the most emotional moments ever put of film. Jean Renoir famously said, “Reality is always magic”, and ‘Close Up’ personifies this to the T.

Very few films have affected me the way ‘Close Up’ has, because it is about every one of us who love cinema and have reveled in its magic. To me, ‘Close Up’ is the greatest movie ever made about the magic of cinema and its ardent fans, and Kiarostami has crafted an enduring masterpiece that will live on the hearts and minds of cinephiles world over.

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