How does one begin to write about Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up (1990), a film as layered as an onion? I remember that when I first watched it, I felt touched by what I then perceived to be its affectionate ending. Later viewings not only changed my feelings toward the movie's conclusion but also left me utterly perplexed.
About 17 years ago, when Hossein Sabzian misled a Tehran family into believing that he was acclaimed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami was intrigued by the story and set out to make a film about it or, to be more precise, he set out not to make a film about it.
Part of Close-Up's complexity arises from the way Kiarostami blends his material. Casting all the parties involved in the fraud as themselves, the filmmaker mixes commentary and footage of Sabzian's trial with reenactments of Sabzian meeting the Ahankhah family and persuading them that he is Makhmalbaf. We see Sabzian explaining himself to the judge and performing in the reenactments. To complicate matters further, Kiarostami, while filming the trial, sets up a camera that is constantly focused on the accused and instructs Sabzian to address it anytime he feels like it. Through these devices, Sabzian gradually unfolds his acting talent, making it harder and harder for us to understand when he is performing and when he isn't.
But Close-Up's motivation beyond questioning Sabzian's credibility is more complicated than a desire to convince us of his guilt. In fact, the only thing we're sure of is that the boundaries between reality and fiction are blurred, if not rendered indistinguishable a theme particularly dear to Kiarostami.
Things get even more convoluted in two films the director made after Close-Up; along with Where Is the Friend's Home? (1987), they form a trilogy. In And Life Goes On (1992), Kiarostami returns to Koker, a village in northern Iran, after a big earthquake practically destroyed it, in order to search for the protagonist of Friend's Home. Using as his main character a director with the same mission, Kiarostami films his surroundings in a cinéma vérité manner, making us think that what we're watching is a documentation of the earthquake's aftermaths.
After And Life Goes On, Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees (1994), a film set in the same earthquake-devastated town, feels akin to a slap in the face. In it, he directs a filmmaker whose attempt to make a movie falls apart when two of his actors refuse to get along. Surprisingly, Through the Olive Trees concentrates on a scene that should feel familiar to anyone who has seen And Life Goes On. The suggestion is that perhaps the film the Through the Olive Trees director is making is none other than And Life Goes On. At least parts, if not everything, of what we've watched in the latter are revealed to be fiction. In Through the Olive Trees, Kiarostami has made a film about a director who is filming a movie about a filmmaker who returns to the village he once made a film in.
One might justifiably wonder, why all these self-referential layers? The answer comes in Taste of Cherry (1997), for which Kiarostami won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Throughout the film we follow a Mr. Badii in his desperate search to find someone willing to help him execute his suicide plan.