20 Years on, Close-Up Is Still Awesome 

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Close-Up (1990)
Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

While Resnais, Oliveira and other era-straddling filmmakers enjoy renewed reverence, Abbas Kiarostami's star has faded since the Iranian filmmaker bestrode the art house in the 90s. But—surprise, surprise—20 years on, Close-Up is still awesome. Kiarostami likes to say of this and other pseudo-aleatory productions that he was not a director in the usual sense, but the 1990 film is both a landmark assemblage of nested dramas and mimetic valences, and a disarming portrait of an artist as some guy (and vice versa).

The story is fraud that taps rhetoric predating the cliché documentary-fiction divide by centuries: drifting soul Hossein Sabzian convinced a respectable Tehran family that he was the well-known filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, seeking catharsis through impersonation. With the participants playing themselves in reenactments—Sabzian/family courtship, the court trial, a journo's packaging the story—Kiarostami wields documentary tropes with an elegance that might be unfamiliar to viewers weaned on ten years of hook-desperate "controversial" docs.

But this setup—an apt word—is the real-false thing, the sort that's hard to replicate with the same subtlety and wit. The effortless-seeming build-up to enlightening confusion is achieved through obsessive attention to detail, from scrambled editing to rampant sound wizardry to, astonishingly, Kiarostami's co-directing the trial with the consent of a judge obviously interested in the philosophical break from routine. And instead of suggesting an artistic gamesmanship with lower stakes in an earlier Iran, class-conscious Sabzian emerges with a neorealist-strength pathos: "I'm speaking of my suffering. This isn't acting."

Opens March 26 at Film Forum

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