I’m not sure I’ve had a more seminal movie-watching experience than the weekend I got lost in the filmography of Abbas Kiarostami.

It was 2011, and the town I lived in just opened a new independent theater. Certified Copy was on the marquee, and while I didn’t know much about it, the presence of Juliette Binoche was enough to sell me. 

To put it mildly, I was totally unprepared for what came next. I didn’t know films could play with perspective and blend competing realities in such smart and movie ways. While I wasn’t new to watching movies, I hadn’t yet ventured too far outside the comfortable confines of Hollywood, so while I enjoyed Certified Copy immensely based on its own merits, it also served as a “gateway drug” of sorts to my discovery of the world’s greatest filmmakers—Fellini, Truffaut, Godard, Renoir.

Just as notable was my discovery of what else this Iranian filmmaker had to offer, and it didn’t take long. The day after my Certified Copy viewing, I sat down with Kiarostami’s 1990 masterpiece Close-Up, a film that shook me to my core. If Certified Copy blew my mind with the way it presents truth and fiction, Close-Up took things to another level. 

That’s primarily because the film is based in fact, and to this day, I struggle with whether or not to call it a documentary. The principals are Hossain Sabzian and members of the Ahankhah family [appropriately, all playing themselves]. In 1989, the former was accused of and pled guilty to impersonating another Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, after using this ruse to take money from the family.

We first meet Sabzian in a recreated scene. A journalist, Hossain Farazmand, is riding with police to question Sabzian and potentially bring him in. Interesting, Kiarostami’s camera is more concerned with the cab driver, a man who insists he hasn’t heard of Makhmalbaf and isn’t particularly interested in this lurid tale.

Later, Kiarostami himself meets Sabzian in prison and asks him about his motives. “He loves art and films,” he says repeatedly and more sheepishly each time. He’s set up as a sort of tragic figure, someone who made a mistake but didn’t mean any genuine harm, and Kiarostami goes out of his way repeatedly to suggest that he’s not special for most of his fellow countrymen. The cops, when asked if they could describe what kind of guy he is, struggle to answer outside of his apparent piety. The judge, meanwhile, doesn’t understand why Kiarostami would want to film this trial.

That’s where the film appears to get into more straight documentary territory. He is not just present in court, but also an active participant. He explains to Sabzian the types of lenses he’s using and asks him to speak to the camera when he doesn’t understand something or would like to otherwise comment. A few years later, MTV producers would tell a group of twentysomethings the same thing on the set of The Real World. Does that make Close-Up a pre-cursor to reality TV? Or maybe it’s one of just a handful of movies in the “reality film” genre?

That’s what makes Close-Up something worth rewatching and studying and recommending. Its temporal elusiveness is forever beguiling. Its thematic clarity is equally enthralling.

There’s a decent chance this is your introduction to Iranian film, too. If so, I hope it’s a gateway drug—a way in to the cinematic treasures that are Panahi, Farhadi, Makhmalbaf himself, and many others. 

This week on The Cinessential, you’ll find articles celebrating Close-Up on the following subjects:

  • The film's blending of narrative fiction and documentary aesthetics
  • More on the true-life context and the film within the film
  • Streaming recommendations from Iran
  • Related Review of Jafar Panahi's Taxi
  • And more!