These movies identify the filmmaker as a student of behavior. But the repetitiveness also has a cumulative power. By the end of each film, you’re overwhelmed by the humanity you’ve witnessed; all those individual interactions, coming one after the other, suggest a world of breadth and density. The word that always comes to mind when I think of these documentaries is voracious: You get the sense that Kiarostami could spend his whole life in that principal’s office, or that intersection, or that classroom, just watching people be. And you might gladly stay there with him, sharing his fascination.
Even in these early works Kiarostami questions form, occasionally undercutting directorial authority and supposed objectivity with clever edits or random digressions that draw attention to the artificiality of his endeavors. But he never undercuts sincerity; rather, the structural and stylistic playfulness always ends up reasserting the dignity of his subjects.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the incredible run of narrative films the director made from the late 1980s through the 1990s. The most seismic of these was 1990’s Close-Up, based on a real-life case in which a poor, movie-obsessed hustler took advantage of a bourgeois Tehran family by pretending he was the celebrated Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Kiarostami restaged the events of the case, with the real people — victims and perpetrator — playing themselves, and then intercut those scenes with what appears to be documentary footage of the man on trial. Except that the documentary footage itself would turn out to be staged: Kiarostami had scripted the defendant’s lines, as well as the family’s forgiveness; he’d even handled some of the questioning from off-camera. The endlessly fractured perspective complicates our ideas of reality and fiction, of celebrity and identity, of directorial distance and intervention. But unlike so much of what we call “self-conscious cinema,” Close-Up never denies us emotion: At the end, the con man meets the real Makhmalbaf and promptly bursts into tears — a discomfiting and deeply heartbreaking moment. All the frames collapse into one; postmodern need not mean post-human.