Criterion Sunday 519: کلوزآپ ، نمای نزدیک Kluzap, Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990)

I do love the late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s works, and this isn’t even my favourite of his. It is however, the film that, perhaps more even than his celebrated Koker trilogy (the first of which pre-dates this film), shows the power of his craft. Once again he approaches a real-life incident but loops in so many layers of storytelling that it’s unclear where documentary ends and fiction begins. Perhaps there is no truth, or perhaps it is all true: there’s a court sequence that seems like it must be unmediated reality but that itself feels like a construct (the grainier image hinting at some more ‘truthful’ technique, like that video-shot sequence at the end of Taste of Cherry, but then there’s also an abundance of very prominent camera equipment, lights and boom operators, that moves us away from cinéma vérité). There are also sequences which must surely be reconstructions, but the classical filmmaking style gives the impression of being there, such that you have to catch yourself occasionally. Is our lead character Hossein Sabzian a foolish figure, a grifter out to make a buck, or is he the one ultimately being conned? You could make an argument for any of these, and all are possible within Kiarostami’s film. Ultimately this is a film asking where the truth lies, and certainly in Close-Up — as perhaps, we are led to believe, in all filmmaking — there is truth and there are lies.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • This is an excellent release for those who love Kiarostami because you get an entire early feature film as a bonus extra, The Traveller (1974), which is claimed in some sources to be his debut feature although it appears from others to be his second film (the first was an hour long, which may be where the confusion lies). In any case, like many of his early short films, this focuses on kids and football. A boy in a small town loves it to the exclusion of his schoolwork and is focused on getting to see the national team play in the capital Tehran. Thereupon he embarks on a series of ruses (mostly of dubious morality) to get the money to go. You can see Kiarostami’s indebtedness to Italian neorealism here, but there’s a lot of what would later become his familiar style present also. It ends in an almost shockingly abrupt way, but it works, especially when we consider its production by a childhood education institute — though there’s nothing overtly didactic about the script (aside from an amusing scene where he’s trying to do some maths, then promptly skips his maths lesson).
  • Another extra is Close-Up, Long Shot (1996, dir. Moslem Mansouri/Mahmoud Chokrollahi), a 44 minute video-shot companion piece that revisits Hossein Sabzian some years after he’d been the focus of Close-Up. With his greying hair (he’d made a reference in the earlier film to dyeing it black) and time to reflect, he cuts a quite different figure from the slightly foolish and diffident man of Kiarostami’s film — suggesting yet another layer on top of those presented in Close-Up of how truth has been manipulated. Certainly Sabzian does feel here — and expresses it with some eloquence — as if he was the one being conned ultimately, and if his story isn’t exactly triumphant, he at least has his wits about him (though sadly he died 10 years later). The filmmakers of this documentary give a sense of his life and family, talking to his friends, and it’s an interesting extra piece of what was already a multi-faceted cinematic puzzle.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Ali Reza Zarrindast زرین‌دست علیرضا; Starring Hossain Sabzian حسین سبزیان, Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف; Length 98 minutes.

Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Tuesday 12 April 2022 (and earlier, probably at home on VHS, Wellington, early-2000s).

مسافر Mosafer (The Traveller, 1974)
Director/Writer Abbas Kiarostami عباس کیارستمی‎; Cinematographer Firooz Malekzadeh فیروز ملک‌زاده; Starring Hassan Darabi حسن دارابی; Length 71 minutes.

Seen at Close-Up Film Centre, London, Monday 5 June 2017.

President (2014)

The Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf has relocated to nearby Georgia to make this film, a political allegory, set in an unspecified country ruled by an elderly military-garbed dictator president (Mikheil Gomaishvili). Apparent unrest has driven his family to fly out of the country on their private plane, though his grandson Dachi (Orvelashvili) prefers to stay, and as they return from the airport to the presidential palace, suddenly the revolutionary forces become evident and the president must go on the run. There’s relatively little I can say about it, as the story is fairly linear and tracks the president on his journey to escape notice and find a safe haven away from his angry people. However, that’s not to say it’s bad or lacks artistry, for every frame shows the evidence of an exemplary technical crew, while the insight at the film’s heart, though fairly straightforward (the dictator must learn what it is to be one of his own citizens), has plenty of moral power. This indeed is one of the traits of the Iranian cinema that Makhmalbaf has come from, to distill these rather complicated moral issues down to a relatively simple premise. It’s also an unusual perspective to take the viewpoint of the deposed leader rather than his struggling citizens, but it works rather well. It’s not that Makhmalbaf is on his side — no doubt he’s endured similar regimes — but it’s a bold move to situate a degree of empathy with the cruel and unjust. What results is a strong film, and, not incidentally, Georgia certainly has some beautiful scenery and striking architecture, all of which is captured very well by the local crew.

Pedantic Note on the Title: Most advertising and press material refer to the film as The President but the film’s title card omits the definite article, so that’s what I’m using here.

President film posterCREDITS
Director Mohsen Makhmalbaf محسن مخملباف‎; Writers Makhmalbaf and Marziyeh Meshkiny مرضیه مشکینی‎; Cinematographer Konstantine-Mindia Esadze მინდია (კონსტანტინე) ესაძე; Starring Mikheil Gomiashvili მიხეილ გომიაშვილი, Dachi Orvelashvili დაჩი ორველაშვილი; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Picturehouse Central, London, Sunday 30 August 2015.