“You’re my audience.”
There’s something about Abbas Kiarostami’s approach to his 1990 breakthrough film Close-Up that can be found in one of the most fascinating characters in his curious fiction/documentary hybrid – and it’s not the star. At the beginning of the film, we’re in territory familiar to appreciators of his 1997 classic Taste of Cherry. In a wandering, looping manner, we follow a cabbie as he drives casually through a Tehran caught so sharply in the crisp autumn light that every stone wall, every falling leaf jumps out at you.
The cabbie has three passengers. There are two thin, taciturn policemen in the backseat who are tagging along with journalist Hassan Farazmand, who excitedly jabbers to the cabbie about this story he’s chasing down. It seems that one Hossein Sabzian has been hanging around with the well-to-do Ahankhah family and impersonating the Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Why exactly he did this, nobody knows, but the family has just figured out Sabzian’s ruse and now the cops are off to arrest him, reporter in tow.
Farazmand can barely contain himself. He talks about the episode being “an Oriana story” (referring to the firebrand Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci) and imagines what a splash it’s going to make when his magazine Sorush runs the story. The cabbie is good-natured but can’t deny a certain distance from these events, “I don’t have time for movies. I’m too busy with life!”
All Farazmand’s excitement, though, wasn’t enough to make him plan appropriately, which becomes clear once he realizes that he doesn’t have a tape recorder for his interview. A fantastic comic scene then has him running up and down the Ahankhah’s cul de sac, banging on doors and asking if anybody has a recorder he can use.
Like Farazmand, Kiarostami is extremely enamored of his story, so much so that he barely fictionalizes it. All the main characters here are played by the real people discussed in Farazmand’s story, which Sorush published in fall 1989. The filmmaker began shooting as events unfolded, gaining access to the courtroom for Sabzian’s trial – the uncharacteristically muddy-looking footage (mostly long close-ups of Sabzian) that takes up the bulk of the film. Afterward, Kiarostami then reenacted scenes he hadn’t been present for, adding his own quirks (the stately cinematography, a sometimes aimless, deadpan humor) and even appearing as himself a number of times.
All of Kiarostami’s enthusiasm, however, can’t make up for the fact that the man at the center of his tale is a cipher who refuses to let himself be solved, no matter how long the camera stays on him. A quiet, slight man whose entire presence seems muffled, Sabzian is hard-pressed to explain exactly why he did what he did. With the family sitting behind him and the stern but fair-seeming judge in front, Sabzian tries to explain himself the best he could.
A printer who only has occasional work, Sabzian has been unable to support his family, and his wife had recently left him, taking one of their two children with her. The combination of his difficult economic straits and a existing predilection toward fantasy – one that only seemed to intensity in later years, according to the follow-up documentary on Sabzian included on this impeccably packaged Criterion edition, which also includes Kiarostami’s hard-to-find first feature, 1974’s The Traveler – appeared to lead to Sabzian’s wanting relief by inhabiting another man’s life for a time. To his mind, there was nobody better than Makhmalbaf, a onetime radical Islamist and detractor of Kiarostami’s who by this time had turned to films about the trials of working-class people in works like The Cyclist. (At one point, Sabzian asks that Makhmalbaf be told that “The Cyclist is part of me.”)
While the trial footage makes for fascinating viewing to some degree, particularly in how the judge deftly manipulates the Ahankhahs toward withdrawing charges and seems convinced that Sabzian is a harmless sort who wanted only friendship and respect, not money (save for some cab fare they loaned him), needs little more than a firm chiding.
But there is only so much that Kiarostami can do with what he has. Sabzian is a curious subject, to be sure, and some of the later footage of him meeting with Makhmalbaf and tearfully asking for the Ahankhahs’ forgiveness has a strikingly humanist force that recalls the Italian neorealist greats. It all doesn’t quite cohere in the manner that Kiarostami ultimately wanted, though, with the film feeling somewhat like Farazmand, eagerly chasing his story down without necessarily having the clearest idea of how to do it.