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Bilge Ebiri’s remembrance of Abbas Kiarostami’s work is well worth your time.

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.

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  • I hadn’t seen that yet, thanks. Richard Brody is also very good.

  • jpgray

    Respect for the guy, but “let life happen,” let the mundane be shown, and let the audience fill in meaning as we are superbly trained to do by… uh, life, has its limitations. This approach is never successful in impregnating each moment with meaning for me.

    What’s clear though, is that when this approach works it really, REALLY works. There are moments in Au Hasard Balthazar or Diary of a Country Priest for non-Kiarostami example that just can’t exist in a tightly plotted or acted(!) film and are memorable forever as something transcending clever plotting or acting (especially since most of the actors are non-actors and the plotting isn’t show-offily clever).

    I assume for certain people these are never “hang out and hear words, watch hands and feet” movies for a moment, and everything is imbued with greatly meaningful great meaning.

    For me it’s always just a few of those beaming moments, surrounded by forty minutes and change of people, speech and limbs just hanging out. Personally, Kiarostami films I’ve watched tend to add more than subtract from those forty minutes unfortunately, but the article is exactly right that there always seems to be more instead of less than what’s shown, and the world of the film always seems deeper as result.

    It’s a serious commitment to make and I assume it must have taken serious skill to execute. I mean, for my mind’s dartboard it often just seems like a haphazard way of throwing your darts, but for others he might be hitting the most hidden bullseyes over and over with great precision.

  • JS

    I’ve always been almost instinctively more attracted to Panahi than to Kiarostami, and of Kiarostami films, I came to Close Up relatively late (had watched Taste of Cherry, Ten [I think], and a couple of others beforehand). But holy fuck, is that movie amazing. I love several of his other films, but Close Up is just astonishing.

    • JS

      Also, while everyone is (rightly) focusing on his 90’s output, it’s worth pointing out that Certified Copy (2010)—his first film made outside Iran, I believe—is also excellent.

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