Is deception inherently malicious or can lying be its own kind of catharsis, a victimless crime perpetrated by broken people?
Abbas Kiarostami’s 1990 docufiction film Close-Up poses a powerful question about the nature of truth. Is deception inherently malicious or can lying be its own kind of catharsis, a victimless crime perpetrated by broken people?
The film follows the trial of Ali Sabzian, a young cinephile who impersonated his favorite filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, to ingratiate himself with the Ahankahs, a family familiar with Makhmalbaf’s work. Sabzian was charged with fraud for having accepted money from the family under false pretenses and was suspected of plotting a burglary. But the real reason for the charade isn’t so easy to pin down, inextricably tied up in layers of complexity about right and wrong, truth and fiction.
Kiarostami discovered Sabzian’s peculiar story in a newspaper and got permission to shoot the trial for his film, but courtroom footage is interspersed with reenactments featuring the real figures acting out key dramatic moments from the ordeal. The film becomes a self-reflexive exploration of reality, identity and cinema.
At the heart of Close-Up is Sabzian, a compelling figure who’s at once sympathetic, fascinating and disturbing. Watching an art film, it’s easy to be beguiled by a film lover who espouses the beauty of depicting suffering. There’s a little Sabzian in every movie nerd who’s written 20 pages of four different screenplays but never finished one, in every video store geek who had to choose a low paying job over following their dreams. Through this lens, Sabzian’s duplicitous compulsion feels less like a con and more like therapy. But when his sentimental confessional in court is juxtaposed with his calculated encounter with the Ahankahs, the effect is unsettling. If he can lie so easily to this family, is he lying to Kiarostami, and to us?
While Sabzian basks in the nourishing sense of respect and purpose he felt pretending to be Makhmalbaf, the judge brings this hard luck tale back to brass tacks. While he doesn’t let Sabzian off the hook for accepting money from the family, Sabzian repeatedly points out how the money was almost ancillary. He insists he just loved the admiration, an escape from the monotony of his true self. But part of his game is in convincing the Ahankahs that they’re all going to have parts in his (Makhmalbaf’s) new film, and that their home would make a perfect location. Embracing his role as fictional director, he suggests they cut a tree down in their yard to free up potential camera angles for the shoot. It doesn’t matter that his farce will never last long enough for the fictitious film to ever come to fruition, but that kind of power is clearly addictive.
In fact, the high Sabzian gets pretending to be Makhmalbaf is part of why his lies hurt the Ahankahs so much. Merdad, one of the sons, isn’t so different from Sabzian. He too has had to struggle with unemployment and the nagging feeling he’s wasted his potential. Befriending the director of one of his favorite films offers him a momentary respite from his own truth. Imagine how heartbreaking it must be to feel your own life elevated by proximity to a figure that isn’t real. The letdown is what hurts the family, not the money. Their dalliance with Sabzian was a break from their own lives the same way Sabizan’s deception offered him a break from his.
The film’s bittersweet finale seems to benefit from the therapeutic nature of casting the subjects in their own reenactments. The very process of making this film seems to have helped Sabzian and the Ahankahs understand one another’s motivations better, opening up the possibility for real forgiveness. And in a sense, they did collaborate on a film: this one. Close-Up way presaged the opiate of reality television, documenting our collective thirst for fame and the elevation of their own lacking existences. There’s something romantic in Sabzian trying to create a better self out of a popular figure he admires. Yet when you realize that 30 years later, this persistent costume ball has become the norm, it’s a reminder such artifice is a temporary salve at best. The major difference between Sabzian’s act and the constant catfishing so many of us are guilty of when curating our digital selves is that unlike the Ahankahs, we’re all in on the con already.