Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Close-Up

aka Nema-ye Nazdik
Abbas Kiarostami, 1990, Iran (7.5*)
This is a small, sub low-budget pseudo-documentary that has much of the story re-enacted by the original participants. It involves the true story of an unemployed Iranian family man, Ali Sabzian, who impersonates Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a director he idolizes and later meets, director of "The Cyclist", the film he admires. Meeting another fan on a bus, he gains entrance to a middle-class family's home as they all like Mohsen's films. Eventually asking for money, he arouses suspicion, so the family patriarch arranges to have him arrested when he returns to their house.

We join the story there in the film's beginning, following a journalist to the arrest. Later we're with the director of this film, Abbas Kiarostami, as they interview the accused, then Iranian court officials, who decide to let them film the trial. (or was it re-enacted?) Iran, opening up its primitive legal system to journalists with cameras - what's wrong with this story?

It would be a touching story otherwise, but I can't separate myself from the locale and the Iranian regime. This is not an earth-moving case either, mere hero worship and impersonation, perhaps for financial gain, as the man has a family to feed. Just about anyone would perpetrate a minor scam if it could feed their kids at the expense of those apparently well-off, and who would blame him. You feel for the criminal in this (his real crime is just poverty), who appears remorseful, as they all do when caught. I don't buy his self-proclaimed innocence in court myself, but then I'm from the nation with the most laws, most prisoners, most lawyers, most time spent in court in the world!

I wasn't as moved as most critics: the film quality is very poor, the sound perfectly awful, the worst I've ever heard. At times it vibrates into unrecognition, in one scene with director Makhmalbaf, it cuts on and off from his remote microphone, some dialogue being lost entirely. (see El Mariachi for a great example of low-budget excellence, so it can be done, and all in single takes)

I'm convinced this movie was Iranian propaganda. They let Kiarostami film in court because this case meant nothing - were any journalists allowed in Roxanne Saberi's so-called trial? I don't buy the veracity of this film, so it loses it's power without the viewer buying the premise. It's an interesting window into a closed regime, even if a cloudy, poorly made one, so in that regard it's worth seeing, just don't expect any decent production values, but the positive is some openly displayed emotions in a raw and human docudrama.

2 comments:

Martin July 24, 2010 at 9:21 PM  

I am always happy to read reviews of one of my all time movie favourites – Close-up. In this case, I have a rather different perspective on a few of the points made – and I felt like leaving a few comments.

Firstly – to my mind at least – this is not a movie about the Iranian justice system and I strongly disagree that it is Iranian propaganda. If anyone is a tool here, it is the Iranian government. In most cases a movie auteur will try to control every second of his movie, every shot, every cut. Au contraire - like a scientist - a documentarist will often go out of her way in order to keep from afflict the process or subject matter she is recording. In a conventional fictional movie, everything is staged by the director. In most documentaries, the directors strive to make the movie as if it was staged by the depicted life. But who stages who or what in this movie? Kiarostami is neither creating a mise-en-scène, nor is he a fly on the wall – perhaps he’s the fly in the soup? But who is making it? The poor movie lover, the hospitable family, the Iranian justice system, Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami or perhaps the viewer?

Iran is an interesting country in many respects. Although it is to great extent governed by fear and brutality, it is still perhaps the most open “democracy” in the “Arab world” – by far more democratic than Saudi Arabia – US’s “partner” amongst the Arab countries ( - by the way, most Iranians do not regard themselves as Arab at all). Interestingly, Iran is the birth nation for many of the greatest movie directors of our time. In fact, many critics and famous directors regard Iran to be the most important cinema producing nation of today – and in respect of cinematic art, I agree. Kiarostami, Panahi, Makhmalbaf (Mohsen and his daughter Samira), Beizai, Naderi, Jallili, Sinai, Beizai, Mehrjui, Majidi, Shahid-Saless – the list goes on and on. These artists do not only run off with a substantial amount of movie awards world wide, many of them are also renowned authors, writers, poets, painters and still photographers. Most of them are quite candid in their opposition to the current Iranian government. Some have decided to leave Iran, others have stayed behind the curtain – like Kiarostami and Panahi. Kiarostami have avoided the most open confrontations with the government – he is less of an obvious political artist than Panahi, who was recently released from jail, and is effectively denied to leave Iran.

My first encounter with Iranian cinema was Close-up. I found it by sheer accident in my campus library 11 years ago. I knew perfectly nothing about Iranian movies, I took it home and it opened up a new cinematic world for me. Nothing less. Part of this for me sublime experience was due to the fact that I did not log on to the internet to read about it in advance. The back cover info on the VHS cover was obscured by library bar codes and registration data, so when I pressed play, I was indeed a tabula rasa.

I watched it over and over again. It was a meta-movie experience of another world. The story outline is indeed simple – it is not an epic tale of any kind. Its grandeur is hidden in clouded layers beneath the surface. Still – more than a decade later – I have a hard time explaining in words to other people why and how I love it. It is not a documentary, it is not fiction, rather it is “function” - it lives and breaths by itself – it creates a new reality of its own; a new timeline. The personas in the movie are both actors, subjects and objects of the movie at the same time. Technically the visual and audio quality might be poor to most standards – but ‘most standards’ do not apply to this movie anyway. In fact, the partial lack of sound towards the end is very much part of the mysterious equation of this movie.
Movies were in fact never the same for me after Close-up. It actually made me go back and re-watch old European and Hollywood classics with fresh eyes. It brought me to the premiere of the Circle by Panahi – it was my ticket into the beautiful poetic world of Iranian movies.

Jose Sinclair July 26, 2010 at 11:45 PM  

Interesting that you got so much from a movie that I got so little from.. at least you recognize that it's not of very professional quality. That for me was influential in my underwhelming review - if a film's craft is so poor as to be a distraction, then the art (or lack therof) is interfering with both my enjoyment and the director's intentions.. I just didn't see much art or craftmanship here, just a low budget film of limited impact and importance..

Some may be impressed by this "leave it all in" attitude, but when the video or sound goes out and it's put into the finished film, then that becomes a detriment and not a positive point..

I've seen much better films from this region, such as Ghobadi's TURTLES CAN FLY and HALF MOON, neither of which had poor craftmanship to distract me from the message.

I'm not as familiar with Iranian films as you are, but I'm certain this isn't the best they have to offer.

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