The Director's New Clothes

Last year's Miami Film Festival introduced Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami to Miami audiences, and what an introduction it was. Kiarostami's three films -- Where Is My Friend's Home?, And Life Goes On . . . , and Through the Olive Trees -- were like nothing seen around these parts before. Fudging the line between truth and reality by using a quasidocumentary technique, Kiarostami exposed an Iran at once exotic and universal, foreign yet eerily familiar. His films were a joy to behold; Kiarostami arrived here unheralded by all but a few cineastes and left as the revelation of the festival.

It should come as little surprise then that the Miami Film Festival had the good sense to go out and book another Kiarostami film for this year's event. Close-Up was made in 1990, but given the timeless nature of his work, topicality is not an issue with Kiarostami's films.

Back in 1990 the director was all set to begin shooting another film altogether when he read about a young, out-of-work Iranian printer, Ali Sabzian, who had been arrested and accused of "swindle and intention to carry out swindle" for impersonating one of Kiarostami's Iranian filmmaking brethren, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami swung into action, persuading a skeptical judge to allow him to interview Sabzian before his trial, as to well as record the actual trial itself.

"I confessed I was a swindler but I am not," Sabzian tells Kiarostami's cameras in the jailhouse before his day in court. "What I did appears like a swindle."

Not in Kiarostami's hands, it doesn't. A woman sits next to an intense-looking young man on a bus. The man (Sabzian), playing a simple practical joke, introduces himself as the celebrated Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. He has not planned this chance encounter, nor does he have any notion where it might lead. The woman has a son with "a zeal for artistic activity" (not to mention an undeveloped screenplay) who would just love to meet the great Makhmalbaf. Sabzian's decision to continue the ruse after the bus stops changes his life in ways he could never have imagined.

As he did in both Where Is My Friend's Home? and Through the Olive Trees, Kiarostami builds an absorbing full-blown character study out of a seemingly innocuous incident. Unlike those two films, however, Close-Up takes place in an urban environment and affords intriguing glimpses of daily life and the Iranian justice system. Kiarostami not only filmed Sabzian's actual trial, he also persuaded all the parties involved to reenact their story, and their performances are guilelessly authentic. Sabzian in particular proves not only to be a natural actor, but also a complex and enigmatic puzzle; when one character tells him "you look like a mystic," you understand immediately what he's talking about. You can never be sure exactly what's going through Sabzian's head, and you can't take your eyes off him.

Close-Up doesn't have the universal appeal of the director's other work A not many viewers will have been in a situation such as Sabzian's. But several familiar Kiarostami motifs surface, from the casting of nonactors to play themselves to the construction of a compelling feature out of an everyday occurrence. And as is the case with his other films, Close-Up opens with a main character who gets lost and has to ask passersby for directions. There are times when the sheer pettiness of Sabzian's alleged transgression robs the film of some potential impact, and Close-Up gets rather confusing in the early going. But Kiarostami's eye for the telling detail and his ability to subtly peel back layer after layer of complication until he gets to a character's -- or a story's -- essence are unmatched in modern moviemaking.

Close-up is written and directed by Abbas Kiarostami; with Ali Sabzian and Mohsen Makhmalbaf.


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