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Written by Godfrey Cheshire on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

This review, the last I
will write for publication in the year that marks the end of the century of
cinema, concerns Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, a 1990 Iranian feature
that I recently named the most important film of the last decade and one of
the 10 most important of the century. That estimation certainly reflects my
own ongoing fascination with Iranian cinema, but it’s hardly idiosyncratic.
In 1990, when few in the film world were cued to the growing potency of Iranian
filmmaking, Close-Up was passed over by high-profile festivals including
Cannes and New York, but won prizes in Montreal and Rimini. Its renown has grown
exponentially since then. After being voted the best Iranian film in history
in a worldwide survey of critics published by the Iranian magazine Film International,
the film has ranked at or near the top of critics’ polls regarding movies
of the 1990s conducted recently in Canada and Europe.

And now comes a signal honor:
Having previously appeared locally only in festival and retrospective settings,
Close-Up at last has an American distributor (Zeitgeist Films) and will
begin its first New York theatrical run on Fri., Dec. 31, at the Screening Room.
Is it cause for chagrin that such a celebrated movie has taken nearly a decade
to reach our theaters? Say, rather, that we’re lucky it took only
a decade, considering the steadily declining appreciation of truly adventurous
foreign films, as well as the still-pervasive resistance to the cultural difference
that Iran represents.

Can any slight, relatively
little-seen film live up to the kind of reputation that increasingly surrounds
Close-Up? Perhaps it’s inadvisable to introduce the movie with superlatives,
which risk creating burdensome expectations. On the other hand, it is my experience
that Close-Up tends to win out over whatever impressions audiences bring
to it. Sure, it is extremely simple on its surface, rough-hewn and relatively
nondramatic by conventional measures. Uninitiated viewers may find themselves
restive and underwhelmed early on. But the film so subtly transmutes our normal
sense of what movies can do that we are ultimately left defenseless against
the extraordinary power of its final scenes, which are as transcendent–and
as shrewd–as anything in cinema.

An unusual mixture of found
reality and fictional elaboration, Close-Up documents the case of Hossein
Sabzian, the Mohsen Makhmalbaf impersonator. The film begins with a story in
the Tehran weekly Sorush that said that a man had been arrested for pretending
to be Makhmalbaf, one of Iran’s most famous film directors, to a middle-class
family. The ruse apparently was somewhat innocent at first. The family, the
Ahankhanhs, invited the supposed Makhmalbaf into their home after the wife met
him on a bus. He regaled them with tales of his career and offered to put them
in his next film.

But the deception soon began
to unravel. "Makhmalbaf" didn’t know anything about an international
award the papers said he had won. More crucially, he borrowed money from the
family and didn’t return it. Suspecting they were being set up for a bigger
ripoff, Mr. Ahankhanh contacted the authorities. The ersatz auteur was picked
up soon after at the Ahankhanh house; Sorush’s reporter witnessed
the arrest. Once his story was printed, Kiarostami entered the picture.

The film opens with the
Sorush reporter and three cops talking as they drive to the Ahankhanh
house for the arrest. The reporter ebulliently hopes that this scoop will make
him as famous as Italy’s Oriana Fallaci; the lead cop expresses puzzlement
that anyone would imitate a film director. The events depicted here, of course,
happened before the film began; what we’re seeing is the first of several
dramatic recreations that Kiarostami staged and filmed after the fact, using
the actual people rather than actors. These sequences he intermixes with real
documentary footage (although this concept grows ever more problematic, as we
shall see), shot as the case of the Makhmalbaf impersonator unfolded.

As Close-Up recounts
it, Kiarostami’s involvement–as both a chronicler and a de facto participant
in the case–begins in earnest when he goes to the authorities and asks
permission to film Sabzian’s legal ordeal. Receiving that, he visits the
defendant in prison to obtain his agreement. Sabzian, who seems nervous and
abashed by his surroundings, recognizes the filmmaker and speaks approvingly
of Kiarostami’s first feature, The Traveler. Kiarostami next applies
to the cleric-judge assigned to hear the case, who, like that policeman speaking
to the reporter, seems bemused and mystified that anyone would want to film
such an odd, unimportant incident; but he gives his permission nonetheless.

The heart of the film is
Sabzian’s trial. Although Kiarostami occasionally cuts away to dramatic
recreations of some of the events alluded to (the wife meeting Sabzian on the
bus, events in the Ahankhanh house before Sabzian was arrested), the movie’s
human drama remains gravitationally centered on the courtroom. For symbolic
as well as practical reasons, Kiarostami used three 16 mm cameras (the other
sequences are in 35 mm) to provide different perspectives on the action. Wide
angles show us Sabzian with his accusers arrayed behind him, and, occasionally,
the judge at the other side of the room. The closeup camera, meanwhile, gives
us an intimate view of Sabzian during his appeals for justice and understanding.

Addressing a turbaned magistrate
of the Islamic Republic, the trial’s antagonists argue passionately about
cinema. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that they argue about passion
for cinema and what it can entail: solidarity, wishfulness, magnanimity,
deceit, obsession, theft, rage. Obviously embarrassed as well as angry, the
Ahankhanhs (late-middle-aged father and mother, grown children) assert that
Sabzian intended to defraud them. They shared with him their very sincere love
of cinema, which he played upon and manipulated with devious, malign intent.

Sabzian is a thin, bearded
man in his late 30s, though his age is hard to determine by appearances: called
young by some, he admits to dyeing his hair. He has worked as a bookbinder,
but appears impoverished; in fact, this is essential to his defense. It seems
he was once married with two children, but has lost his family due to his obsession
with movies. Evidently a successful autodidact, he quotes Tolstoy and speaks
with a taut, pressured, sometimes very moving eloquence, saying such things
as, "Ill will is the veil that covers art."

Explaining his deception,
he describes an arduous but liberating simulation of artistry. "It was
difficult enacting the role of director, but it gave me confidence and I gained
[the family’s] respect," he says. "They did everything I told
them. I would for instance tell them to move a cupboard from a certain place
and they would do it. Before that, I had never succeeded in making people accept
my views; they would obey me hesitantly. But in that house and under the guise
of that assumed personality I could make everyone obey me. But when I left that
house and had to accept money from them in order to buy something for my child
and pay for my way home to the suburbs, I realized I was the same poor man who
could not provide for his family–that I still had to accept my lonely lot
among the poor."

"That was why,"
he continues, "when I woke up the next day, I still wanted to go back and
play that role. It was very difficult, but I still wanted to do it because of
my love for the cinema and also because they respected me and gave me moral
support. So I went about the job very seriously. And I had come to believe I
really was a director. I was not acting anymore. I was that new person."

Cinema loves dramatic transformations
like the one just described, but the Ahankhanhs don’t buy it for a second.
They reject Sabzian as an imaginary director, saying he was only a lying actor,
and still is. At this point, the film has our sympathies in its crosshairs.

If virtually every filmgoer
is a cinephile to some degree, few will readily sympathize with the duped, polite
cinephilia of the bourgeois family. This despite (or perhaps because of) the
likelihood that the Ahankhanhs resemble us far more than we resemble Sabzian,
the poor man who carries cinephilia–cinemania–to dark, Dostoevskian
extremes. Close-Up likewise casts its lot with the accused; which is
to say that it identifies with Sabzian rather than that it necessarily believes
him. It wants to give him the benefit of the doubt, perhaps to redeem the guilty
obsession it finds in (and shares with?) him.

It is impossible not to
be touched by Sabzian, in any case. He refuses to be reduced to a "case,"
a pitiable member of the class where poverty’s desperation and mental disturbance
so often converge. As he maintains his stoic dignity and appeals to a justice
beyond the grievance lodged against him, the court in its way comes around to
him. The judge maneuvers Sabzian and the family away from their hostile stances,
toward reconciliation and forgiveness.

The film’s remarkable
final sequence begins as Sabzian is released from prison. As he emerges from
the gates, he is met by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and breaks down weeping. Kiarostami’s
camera observes the scene from inside a van some distance away; the hidden mic
Makhmalbaf wears breaks up, providing fragmentary sound throughout. Then Makhmalbaf
takes Sabzian on his motorcycle and sets off through the Tehran traffic; the
theme music of Kiarostami’s The Traveler comes in. The two men stop
to buy flowers. They are heading for the Ahankhanh house–and the epiphanic
meeting that ends the film–yet the most exultant image of all is simply
the director and his admirer pressed together on the motorbike, removed from
suffering and indignity, united, for once, in friendship and art.

The image of improbable
union recalls something that Sabzian said during his trial, in that strangely
poetic way of his: "I asked the Muse why he was hidden. He answered, ‘It
is you who are hidden. We are slaves of a selfish part behind which is hidden
our real being. If we get rid of the selfish part, we can behold the beauty
of truth.’" Close-Up shares that mystical dedication to unveilings
and beauty. It also knows that at times truth can’t be had through the
facts, but must be approached indirectly, by way of deception.

In every way imaginable
the film stresses duality; extremes and contradictions; mirror-ideas that are
innumerable but begin with art and nature, or perhaps God and creation. The
fact that its themes touch on our notions of identity and role-playing and such
is largely incidental, though important to the film’s transnational appeal.

It’s almost impossible
to encounter Close-Up, I would say, without in some way being startled
by it. It was one of the first Iranian films I encountered, in 1992, and I recall
my lingering surprise that it seemed more deeply sophisticated than any contemporary
American or European film. What possible viewership could it have been made
for? The Iran it conjured appeared somehow both medieval and postmodern–and
little in between. (Visiting Iran later only bolstered this impression.)

When I met Kiarostami for
the first time, in New York in the fall of ’94, I told him straightaway
that Close-Up was my favorite of his films. He said it was his own favorite,
and that it seemed to have a growing following, though in Iran it had initially
been misunderstood and derided; someone he’d just met, he said with mild
wonderment, had compared it to Citizen Kane. This last remark typifies
the filmmaker’s exquisite tact; its veil of bemused modesty covers Kiarostami’s
astute and healthy sense of his own artistic worth.

The comparison obviously
shouldn’t be stretched too far, but Citizen Kane and Close-Up
both adapt the techniques of documentary to fiction, suggest multiple paths
to "the truth" and focus on men whose final quality is their unknowability.
Most of all, the films are anomalies that somehow became paradigms of their
respective eras, and that now bear reputations that encompass not only the works
themselves but also the auras of opinion that have grown up around them. Kane,
after all, is not just a major Orson Welles creation but "the greatest
film of all time," a largely mythic accolade that took more than two decades
to coalesce and that had a lot to do with the emotional and intellectual buttons
the movie happened to push in France in the post-WWII period. Close-Up’s
still-coalescing renown has a similarly international basis, since it reflects,
in part, the West’s evolving view of Iran’s cinema.

That cinema began emerging
from the systemic ruin of revolution in 1983, following a shrewdly conceived
government initiative aimed at reviving the once-thriving Iranian film industry.
By 1990, the program’s most notable successes–including Amir Naderi’s
The Runner, Bahram Beyzai’s Bashu, the Little Stranger and
Kiarostami’s own Where Is the Friend’s House?–had begun
attracting serious international attention. All of these films lyrically, compassionately
depict children in impoverished circumstances, a similarity that came to suggest
a noble but confining stereotype: Iranian films, like some others from the Third
World, it was said, were basically Italian neorealism redux, full of radiant
urchins and the glow of humanistic concern.

Close-Up, being essentially
a Bicycle Thief in which the stolen "vehicle" is not a bicycle
but a film director’s identity, instantly complicated that definition in
the most useful possible manner. Suggesting a direct line from Rossellini to
Godard to Kiarostami, it seemed to recombine the social concern of neorealism
with the French New Wave’s cerebral self-expression and formal idiosyncrasy,
and to project the whole into the vitalizing context of a postrevolutionary
Islamic culture. The film’s key innovations–the unorthodox mix of
documentary and docudrama; the self-reflexive musing on cinema and its impact;
the simultaneous exaltation and questioning of the auteur–were not entirely
new to Iranian movies, but Close-Up presented them so forcefully as to
establish a couple of new trademarks. Thereafter, Iranian cinema meant not just
"films about poor children," but also "films about film"
and "films that explore the line between fact and fiction."

If a movie’s importance
is measured by its influence, Close-Up’s is there to be seen in
numerous Iranian movies of the 90s, including several by the two directors at
its center. Kiarostami’s And Life Goes On (1992), Through the
Olive Trees
(1994) and The Wind Will Carry Us (a 2000 release in
the U.S.), and Makhmalbaf’s The Actor (1993), Once Upon a Time,
(1995), Salaam Cinema (1995) and A Moment of Innocence
(1996), all foreground filmmakers and filmmaking, and creatively intermix reality
and fabrication. Together these films comprise a uniquely poetic and staggeringly
complex set of reflections on (and, in effect, inter-artist conversations about)
the meanings and potentials of cinema. Beyond Iran, meanwhile, Close-Up
seems to have anticipated a decade when "artistic" filmmaking increasingly
equated with cinematic self-consciousness, the late-inning kind that sums up
and deconstructs rather than inaugurates: if you look hard enough, you can see
the Kiarostami film’s shadow stretching all the way down to American
and Being John Malkovich.

Yet Close-Up is never
ironic or glib, as those films sometimes are. And it attains a kind of mastery,
as they do not, by surpassing cleverness for profundity. Its deepest attractions
in fact antedate anything that might be called fashionable. The theme of the
impostor, for one, is old enough to give the film a constant hint of the uncanny;
it evokes doppelgangers, twins, the supposed supernatural powers of mirrors,
even the belief among Muslims that the figure crucified on Calvary was not Jesus
but his double. Here we skirt the territory of Borges and Calvino, Jung and
the brothers Grimm, where caution must be exercised. To suggest that the essentials
of Close-Up’s story, including the fascination with film directors,
are universal would be to miss half of the equation.

This occurred to me recently
when I reread the transcript of an interview I did with Kiarostami in Iran about
Close-Up. At one point, the translator interjects the comment (to me),
"Only in Iran would you find someone like Sabzian." Indeed, and here
we glimpse the paradoxical alchemy that connects Close-Up to much great
art: on the one hand, Sabzian is as universal as Quixote or the Little
Tramp, while, on the other, he’s absolutely specific to Iran. Perhaps in
other nations–though not many, surely–you will find eloquent, reflective
paupers who are up on their Tolstoy, but where else is there one who is fixated
on the artistry of his country’s film directors? This belongs to Iran alone,
because only Iran effectively walled itself off from the world in 1979, thereby
sealing under glass, as it were, a great 70s film culture, which it then revived,
privileged and released back into the world in the 80s.

In 1996 Susan Sontag published
a famous essay bemoaning the "death of cinephilia," meaning the cinephilia
of her youth. I thought at the time, and still think: she should see Iran. There
one finds cinephilia as perhaps existed in Paris in the mid-60s. People are
movie-mad. Filmmaking has the kind of cultural cachet once reserved for poetry
and novels; directors are intellectual icons. TV is still a faint glow that
no one pays much attention to (except when it shows old American movies like
Shane) and cinephilia is very much tied to literacy; newsstands are festooned
with film magazines of every description. In other words, the culture that produces
a cinematic renaissance like the one including Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf is
the same culture that, almost ineluctably, will produce a Sabzian.

It should be added that
when Close-Up was in the making–halfway between Iran’s 1979
revolution and today–that culture was in a period of crucial flux. In July
of 1988 the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war, which had cost a million lives, ended
in a bitter stalemate. The cessation of hostilities meant that many Iranians
began to focus on the failure of the revolution to achieve its high-flown goals,
especially among the still-suffering urban poor–like Sabzian. It also prompted
certain hard-liners to shift their hostility from the Iraqis to the liberals
who dominated the Islamic Republic’s culture bureaucracy, including Minister
of Culture (now President of Iran) Mohammad Khatami, whose ministry had effected
the revival of Iran’s cinema. Then, in February of 1989, Iran’s culture
wars went global when the Ayatollah Khomeini–who would die in June, ending
Iran’s revolutionary decade–issued a death sentence against the author
Salman Rushdie for alleged heresy against Islam.

You get distant hints of
both of these currents in Close-Up: the fading of revolution’s glow
perhaps prompted one poor man to transfer his allegiance to the figure of a
film director, just as the chilling of the cultural climate may have increased
Kiarostami’s tendency to speak metaphorically about the links between cinema
and society in Iran. It was a time of growing divisions, including those represented
by the two directors we see in Close-Up.

Kiarostami, who was nearing
50 when he made the film, had grown up in a comfortable middle-class family,
studied art in college and had made two features and a number of shorts prior
to 1979. When the young intellectuals working under Khatami set about creating
a cinema of quality for the Islamic Republic, he was one of a number of prerevolutionary
directors they entreated to begin working again.

Makhmalbaf, who was just
over 30 at the time of Close-Up, was his opposite number in almost every
respect. Self-educated, he had grown up devout and poor in Tehran’s lower-class
southern district. At age 17 he participated in a terrorist action against the
Shah’s police, was wounded and captured, then imprisoned under torture
for four years. Released by the revolution, he became a fundamentalist polemicist
and playwright before turning to filmmaking. His first films were relatively
crude exercises in postrevolutionary orthodoxy. But as his skill as a director
increased, he also became more independent-minded, questioning his former certainties
and scrutinizing the inequities of postrevolutionary society.

The three films he made
in the middle and late 80s–The Peddlar, The Cyclist and Marriage
of the Blessed
–were works of stinging social criticism that propelled
Makhmalbaf to the front ranks of Iranian filmmakers. They also made him an admired
figure across a wide swath of Iranian society, as Close-Up shows. Sabzian’s
deception begins when he is on a bus holding the screenplay of The Cyclist,
a woman asks what he is reading and he impulsively claims to be the book’s
author. Behind that ruse, quite evidently, is an identification that borders
on worship: for Sabzian, Kiarostami is a filmmaker, but Makhmalbaf is a hero
of extraordinary proportions.

Our own cinephilia never
approaches the extremity of emotion Sabzian gives voice to in Close-Up.
"Unfortunately," he says haltingly, "I have not been able to
practice the Koranic injunction that says, ‘Remembering God is the best
consolation for a troubled heart.’ And whenever I am depressed or overwhelmed
by troubles, I feel a strong need to cry out the anguish of my soul, the sad
experiences of my life, which no one wants to hear about. And then I find a
good man who shows my sufferings in his films and makes me want to see them
over and over again. A man who dares to expose the people who trade on other
people’s lives–the rich people who are heedless of the simple needs
of the poor, which are basically economic needs."

Although it goes against
the film’s aura of goodwill to point this out, Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf
actively detest each other, and have through much of the last two decades. Close-Up
marks a brief and curious respite in their mutual loathing. The hostility evidently
began with Makhmalbaf, who spent part of the 80s vituperatively denouncing prerevolutionary
directors, including Kiarostami, as decadent, bourgeois remnants of the old

Then, after 1989’s
Marriage of the Blessed, Makhmalbaf underwent another of his chameleonlike
changes of mind and began making nice with his former adversaries, whose artistry,
it seems, he had begun to admire. Kiarostami says that he met Makhmalbaf for
the first time in a movie theater just prior to the genesis of Close-Up,
when the younger director approached him and asked him to take a look at a script
he had written.

What happened next is, appropriately,
a matter of dispute. In the summer of 1997 I interviewed the two filmmakers
separately and they gave me very different accounts about the origins of Close-Up.
Both versions begin with the directors meeting in Kiarostami’s office.
Where they diverge is over the issue of who had the crucial copy of Sorush
magazine, and who first thought of making a movie about the strange case of
the Makhmalbaf impersonator.

Makhmalbaf claims that he’d
already had the idea to make the movie, and that he was holding an advance copy
of Sorush, which had not yet hit the stands, rolled up in his fist as
he talked with Kiarostami. After Kiarostami asked to see the magazine and scanned
the article, Makhmalbaf says, he began enthusing, "This is fantastic, this
is unbelievable," and immediately started to argue that Makhmalbaf couldn’t
be the one to film the story because he was part of it. Kiarostami, naturally,
says that the initial concept was his.

In his version, the magazine
is already out and a copy lies on his desk as he talks to Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami
doesn’t think much of the script Makhmalbaf has shown him (one can imagine
him nervous at Makhmalbaf’s presence), so he turns the subject to the Sorush
article, and the idea for Close-Up sparks. Kiarostami then convinces
Makhmalbaf to borrow a car with him so that they can make a little expedition
to explore the idea. They go first to the police station where Sabzian is being
held, and learn more details about his case. Then they drive to the Ahankhanh
house, where a droll scene unfolds.

Kiarostami goes to the door
and announces himself. The daughter of the family asks skeptically for some
ID. They have just gotten rid of a fake Makhmalbaf, she says, they certainly
don’t need a fake Kiarostami. Kiarostami doesn’t have an ID, but he
says he has something just as good: Makhmalbaf, who is sitting in the car. He
produces Makhmalbaf and the family–one can imagine their initial befuddlement–admits
the two filmmakers. Tea is served and the conversation runs late into the night.
By the end of the evening, as Makhmalbaf tells it, Kiarostami has very adroitly
bamboozled everyone concerned, including him, into playing roles in the film.

Bamboolzement of various
sorts dominates the film’s legend from here on. Although Zeitgeist’s
publicity surely won’t stress it, Close-Up, a film about a double,
has its own double. The version of the film shown in the early 90s in New York
differs from the one currently in circulation. The earlier version was more
chronological, beginning with the incident of Sabzian meeting the woman on the
bus. Kiarostami changed the movie, he told me, after seeing it projected at
a festival in Munich where the projectionist accidentally mixed up the reels.
Rather than being offended, he decided he liked the scrambled chronology better
and reedited the film accordingly. When I expressed surprise at this, he replied
matter-of-factly that a movie is good or a movie is bad, and neither fact is
affected by the order the reels are shown in. (Godard is one of the few filmmakers
who would surely agree.)

If Sabzian is deceptive,
Close-Up, it turns out, is even more so. Very few scenes in the film
that appear to be documentary actually are. The trial scenes, in fact, are elaborate
fakes (and the use of 16 mm thus is one of the film’s stylistic tricks).
Kiarostami himself orchestrated what happened in the courtroom, including the
family’s forgiveness (they actually wanted Sabzian to be locked up). Kiarostami
also scripted much of Sabzian’s testimony, although, as he carefully pointed
out to me, it was all taken from things actually said by Sabzian, whose speech
really is clogged with literary references, mystical aphorisms and cinephilic
jargon. In fact, Kiarostami conducted much of that testimony; seated beside
Sabzian, he asks most of the questions we hear coming from off-camera during
the trial.

The film’s amazing
conclusion depicts Sabzian’s actual release from prison, as I understand
it, and his tears are genuine. But much that surrounds the incident is deceptive.
Makhmalbaf’s appearance, of course, was arranged by Kiarostami. Kiarostami’s
camera being "hidden" is an unnecessary device that slyly converts
a documentary technique to dramatic purpose. And there is this: the "sound
problems" caused by that bad mic on Makhmalbaf are also fake, applied to
the soundtrack after the fact (Kiarostami does something similar in his documentary
Homework). This little trick, it would seem, is crucial to the film’s
final impact. After straining against the annoyance caused by the in-and-out
sound, the viewer inevitably experiences an emotional surge when the beautiful
theme of The Traveler suddenly overwhelms the mechanical dissonance.

Perhaps most remarkable
is that the judge in this case was somehow bamboozled into turning the trial
over, in effect, to Kiarostami. This alone is weighted with more symbolism than
any non-Iranian can parse, yet one of its implications must be read as favorable
to the Islamic Republic. Virtually every serious Iranian feature from before
the revolution, including Kiarostami’s, exudes a dark, cynical, fatalistic
mood. Postrevolutionary features, even when strongly critical of certain aspects
of society, are far more positive and buoyant. That Close-Up is easily
one of the most exultant of all can’t help but testify to the society that
produced it; in effect, the film shows the revolution’s aim of a society
transformed by faith being achieved, at least in one instance. The qualifying
irony is that the real "just ruler" here–like Shelley’s
unacknowledged legislator–is an artist, and the transforming power is the
belief that we invest in art’s beneficence.

Close-Up invites
endless interpretation, but Kiarostami is clear about his reading of it. He
says it is about the power of imagination, and of cinema as a vehicle of dreams.
As he put it to me: "With the help of dreams you can escape from the worst
prisons. Actually, you can only imprison the body but dreams flee the walls
and without visas or dollars can travel anywhere. In dreams, you can sleep with
anyone you want. Nobody can touch your dreams. In a way dreams exactly embody
the concept of freedom. They free you of all constraints. I think God gave human
beings this possibility to apologize for all the limitations he’s created
for them."

Kiarostami has also said,
"We can never get close to the truth except through lying," a prescription
that can easily be misread. We might well place the emphasis on the lie, but
Kiarostami places it on truth. Though truth is real, he implies, it is not a
given but is created through will and the ethical sense–the intent–that
links artist and viewer. In the end, Close-Up turns cinema’s mirror
back on us, asking us to see that Sabzian’s escape and reconciliation are
constructed of our own compassion.

Close-Up runs Dec. 31
through Jan. 6 at the Screening Room, 54 Varick St. (Canal St.), 334-2100. On
Sat. & Sun., Jan. 1 & 2, at the 10:05 p.m. shows, Godfrey Cheshire will
discuss Kiarostami’s work and show two short films, Nanni Moretti’s
"The Day Close-Up Opened" and a subsequent documentary about Sabzian,
"Close-Up Long Shot."

year I put only eight titles on my 10-best list, in protest of what seemed a
very lackluster cinema year. This year I’m reclaiming those two empty slots,
in recognition of a much better year. In order of preference, my 10 (make that
12) Best for 1999:

The Straight Story
(David Lynch, USA/France)
The Wind Will Carry Us (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/France; a mid-2000 release
in the U.S.)
Cookie’s Fortune (Robert Altman, USA)
All About My Mother (Pedro Almodovar, Spain/France)
Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh, UK)
Being John Malkovich (Spike Jonze, USA)
The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick, Eduardo Sanchez, USA)
Fight Club (David Fincher, USA)
American Movie (Chris Smith, USA)
La Ciudad (The City) (David Riker, USA)
Ride with the Devil (Ang Lee, USA)
Holy Smoke (Jane Campion, USA)