Internationally acclaimed master Iranian film auteur Abbas Kiarostami, who passed away on July 4, 2016 at age 76, stated earlier this year at a TIFF event called In Conversation with… that “films should aim to give a higher awareness of ourselves and the world.” And this is certainly the credo that he lived by and demonstrated in all his films.

Known for his experimental minimalist style and touching stories of human frailties that often mix real events and people (often children), with a matter-of-fact simplicity and poetic sensibility, Kiarostami became an art house and festival favorite around the world, winning many awards including the Palme d’Or.

Of his oeuvre of over 70 films, some of his best known are Taste of Cherry (1997), Ten (2002) and Like Someone in Love (2012). But one film stands out as one of his most exceptional achievements and also one of his more accessible to western audiences. Close-Up (1990), representative of his unique style of filmmaking, is a true story which mixes actual events as they happened and re-enactments of recent events using the very people it happened to. 

A kind of neorealist docudrama if you will, that takes a newspaper headline and probes deeper into the lives of the people involved, turning it into a cinematic parable revealing a moral and inspirational message. The filmmakers, acting as investigative journalists, take an active role in bringing the story to life while pushing the boundaries of neorealism.

The idea for Close-Up came to Kiarostami after reading an article in the paper about a poor man in Tehran who had been arrested for impersonating a famous Iranian film director who he admired, and convincing an upper middle class family to help him make his next film. Kiarostami was struck by something the man said in the article and immediately went to the police station to talk to this man about his reasons for perpetrating this fraud, and filmed it.

What we discover through the course of the film, which is partly a re-enactment of the events leading up to the man’s arrest by the actual people in the story playing themselves, is that they all share a love and respect for the power of cinema.

To understand and appreciate Kiarostami, one needs to know a little about neorealism; a style of filmmaking that was born just after W.W. II in Italy with movies like Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) and Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945), which championed the common man’s struggle and exposed social and political problems.

It is generally defined by the use of real locations rather than sets and using unknown non-professional actors that are found at the location or nearby where the story is filmed. Close-Up captures the natural real life experiences of people as they would have happened and did happen based on their own testimonies, allowing for the authentic expression of emotions without the usual artifices that surround a film set.

We learn during his trial that the impersonator, Hossein Sabzian, far from having any thought of financial gain, was motivated by his love of film, and fell into a situation whereby he abandoned all thought of the consequences of his actions, so that for a short time he could enjoy being treated as a respected celebrity and live out a dream.

Kiarostami’s films have often been banned in his home country and he worked under heavy censorship and budget constraints, generally lacking professional equipment, usually filming with only one camera, minimal music, natural lighting and a simple documentary shooting style. There is often not even a script; the dialogue is often improvised by the people on the set. 

Near the end of Close-Up, once you realize what you’ve just witnessed, it’s quite extraordinary to see what has happened and how it was all captured on screen. You can’t help but be fascinated and humbled by these people and feel respect for the collaboration of everyone involved in bringing this little gem to life. 

Ultimately, through Kiarostami's universal vision, we become more aware of whom we are as humans and the world around us, regardless of where in the world we live.


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