In Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami retells the true story of the trial of Hossein Sabzian who fraudulently convinced a family that he was the famous film director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The entire incident comes about in a seemingly innocent way; however, the moral struggle surrounding the deception involves a complex wrestling with themes of identity, belonging, forgiveness and repentance.
Sabzian is arrested, imprisoned, and put on trial for fraud. The family he defrauded suspects him of conspiring to steal from them by pretending to be a famous film director. During the trial Sabzian refutes this, insisting that he never had any intention of stealing from them and that he was rather uncertain of his own motives. (Sabzian does admit later in the movie, “I am tired of being me.”)
Sabzian is a poor man who finds comfort in Makhmalbaf’s films because he identifies with them so deeply that they become a part of him, shaping his identity and kinship with the famous director. Conveying the struggle and suffering in life, Makhamalbaf can articulate all that Sabzian cannot and he does it with authority and the attention and respect of those who listen.
The film raises many issues. For example, identities are formed and shaped by a variety of influences; how we present ourselves is influenced by how we want to be seen. Each one of us possesses the potential to display ourselves in fraudulent ways. Deception is often seen as a two-way street; one cannot deceive without a person who wants to be deceived. Sometimes one wants to deceive oneself.
Some in the family he defrauded wanted to believe him—especially the sons, who were struggling with their own identities. Sabzian admits that he liked playing someone else: “above all because they respected me.” Sabzian is not on trial alone in this film. Cinema in general is also placed in the chair of the accused. This is most apparent in the courtroom scenes where Kiarostami is obviously directing the proceedings—demonstrating that film involves a form of manipulation.
In the structure of a docudrama (part documentary, part reenactment, and part “set-up”) the retelling of these true events by Abbas Kiarostami offers us a close-up look at the struggle involved in the process of repentance and forgiveness as well as a reflection on the presentation of self and the effects cinema has on our lives.