This week at the Wellington Film Society: Abbas Kiarostami’s masterpiece.
Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami is arguably the world’s greatest contemporary filmmaker, and his reputation in the West, at least, exploded following the release of his masterpiece Close-Up. His films have always challenged the objectivity of the image, of our perception of ‘reality’, and fall somewhere in between fiction and documentary. He’s also a very playful director, an aspect that gets lost underneath all his philosophising. Kiarostami’s delight in the intricacies and vagaries of real-life is deeply palpable, and his love of humankind (even if he’s chronicling our flaws) manages to sit alongside his deeply political and existential implications.
Close-Up recounts the true story of an unemployed man, Hossein Sabzian, who convinces a bourgeois family that he’s the famous Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and that they’d be able to perform in his new film. Although Sabzian is subsequently arrested for fraud, Kiarostami manages to convince all the real-life persons involved to ‘act’ in recreating his story. To complicate matters further, he incorporates documentary footage of Sabzian’s actual trial.
With this arrangement, Kiarostami questions the trust we place in an image: is the film autobiography, documentary, fictional, or none of the above? How should narratives be constructed when a narrative attempts to grapple with reality? Where does an audience sit in the middle of this? His film creates a lot of space within for the audience to deconstruct the ‘reality’ through messing with chronology, using sub-plots, and by blurring the boundaries between artificial and ‘real’.
Close-Up is also about the transcendence of art, in a world that’s constantly about movement, and which is temporally and spatially unstable. Art can also be remarkably fragile, made by confused or deceptive authors (whether it’s Sabzian or Kiarostami himself), or through, or in spite of, little mistakes and issues (highlighted, for instance, when the sound cuts out in the film). Moreover, regardless of the protagonist’s faults, Sabzian is a deeply likeable character, and the end result—the film Close-Up itself—is the art that results from Sabzian’s deception.
The film also deconstructs Sabzian through Kiarostami’s formal trickery, a process which makes Sabzian’s character extremely unstable. In effect, the only way we can ever judge a person is through our own subjective re-construction of him or her. But his identity (or at least our perception of his identity) constantly changes as we are forced to re-evaluate him as the narrative progresses.
Despite Kiarostami’s cinema appearing to be about the mundane aspects of everyday life (typified in Close-Up by a shot of rubbish), his profoundly empathetic approach to his subjects allows his truly wonderful films to pose crucial questions about art, the self, identity and perception.