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Laramie Movie Scope: Close-Up
(Nema-ye Nazdik)

Morning movie, after two cups of coffee

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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February 23, 2002 -- "Close-Up" ("Nema-ye Nazdik") is another Iranian film, like "Kandahar" that blurs the lines between drama and documentary. It forces you to look at details like camera set-ups to tell if it is recording real events, recreating real events, or creating some alternate cinematic realities. Nothing is quite what it appears to be on the surface. The film requires you to look closer, like the invitation in "American Beauty." The difference is, this time, there is a lot more depth to the story.

Not only is the film based on actual events, the star, one Hossain Sabzian, alias Mohsen Makhmalbaf, plays himself. A number of other people in the film also play themselves and reprise the actions they took in the true life story. There are also some actors playing roles of other characters in the film.

Sabzian, who is sometimes mistaken for Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf (who directed "Kandahar") pretends he is Makhmalbaf, hoping to get a meal from a wealthy family. The lie becomes bigger as he continues to play the role of the director, convincing the family that he plans to use their house as the location of a movie. He accepts money from the family, as well as food and lodging and transportation. He is caught, jailed and tried for the crime of fraud. Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami ("Taste of Cherry") reads of the case and is fascinated by it. He films the trial, sort of. The back story is filled in with flashbacks.

For American viewers, the trial may be the most interesting part of the movie. The Iranian legal system is different than the U.S. adversarial system. There are no lawyers at the trial. There are only the accusers, the accused and the judge. The judge seems interested in understanding the reasons behind Sabzian's deception. Sabzian is able to discuss his motivations at length, quoting from Plato and from some of his favorite movies. His love of the arts, particularly of film, led to his crimes, he argues. His own life was so empty that he felt more alive as someone else. By taking on the persona of a famous film director, he was able to gain respect. He became addicted to the role, and to the prestige he enjoyed because of it.

The act of filming these events gives Sabzian's performance a kind of reverberating depth. It is like standing between two mirrors and looking at infinite reflections of reflections. Sabzian is playing a role within a role, like a movie within a movie. The movie also reflects the tragic past and turbulent present of life in Iran. Sabzian is playing himself, playing Makhmalbaf. At one point he actually meets the real Makhmalbaf and collapses into his arms, weeping. One can feel sorry for a man so lost that he is only happy pretending to be someone else. On the other hand, Sabzian always wanted to be an actor, and here he is, starring in a film all about himself! What could be better than that? Directing that same film, of course. One of Sabzian's accusers says during the trial he's not sure if Sabzian has really repented his sins, or he is simply playing another role. Well, he is and he isn't.

Perhaps what Sabzian did in Iran is unusual there, but here in America it is not all that unusual, especially in places like New York or Hollywood, there is no shortage impersonators, I mean actors. Among some artists and others, what Sabzian did is admirable, and worthy of attention. Others, who don't buy the argument that artists can do no wrong, may find his deception offensive, or at least annoying. I can certainly understand why an Iranian director would find this story fascinating, because Sabzian is in love with movies made by Iranian filmmakers, including Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf. I do not share that fascination. I did not find the story compelling. I was struck by this film's similarity to the documentary "Benjamin Smoke." Like Benjamin, Sabzian just isn't that interesting to watch or to listen to. Not understanding Farsi, I couldn't pick up the inflections of the language. Everything seemed to be delivered in a kind of dry monotone. Probably much was lost in the translation to subtitles. The endless talk, much of it banal, put me to sleep, and it wasn't even that late. I'd recommend watching this movie in the morning, after drinking a couple of cups of coffee. This DVD rates a C.

The just-released DVD of the 1990 film has good picture quality, but the sound levels fluctuate substantially. A remote microphones fails in one key scene. There are some special features, including an interview with the director, as well as filmographies of Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf. In the interview, the Kiarostami tells of how he read the story of Sabzian and, even though he was scheduled to shoot another film, he quickly decided to make a low-budget movie about the incident.

Click here for links to places to buy this movie in video and/or DVD format, the soundtrack, books, even used videos, games and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2002 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)