Abbas Kiarostami, Close-Up, 1990, still from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes.

“A TRUE ARTIST is someone who is close to the people,” says Hossein Sabzian, whose trial for impersonating the filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the subject of Abbas Kiarostami’s documentary-cum–neorealist drama Close-Up (1990). This common enough sentiment resonates in Close-Up as a bold thesis for a cinema that is not merely populist but thoroughly and originally democratic.

Newly divorced and, like a quarter of Iranians in 1990, chronically unemployed, Sabzian lives only for cinema. He adopts the identity of his hero, Makhmalbaf, out of a need for self-worth. His victims—the middle-class Ahankhah family, whose overeducated and underemployed sons Sabzian promises will star in his next vérité film—likewise take comfort in imagining their banal sufferings as the stuff of Art. Close-Up realizes their shared dreams, albeit differently than they had envisioned: After Sabzian was released from prison, Kiarostami had the two parties reenact their ill-fated charade for his camera. These beautifully-shot reenactments are so seamlessly mixed with documentary footage that, on first viewing, it can be impossible to tell what is staged and what is not, especially once it becomes apparent that the “documentary” sections themselves are not without elements of creative distortion.

The confusion of aesthetic forms doubles the confusion of social hierarchies, of law and morality, truth and deceit, and art and life. Yet the audience never feels stranded in a mire of postmodern uncertainty. Lighthearted and entertaining throughout, Close-Up is cinema as reconciliation—human reconciliation as well as the reconciliation of incongruous realities. The making of the film is an act of forgiveness: The reenactments bring together culprit and victims to negotiate their differences outside the epistemology of the courtroom. Class antagonists come together as artistic collaborators in an assertion of their equality as creative beings—homo aestheticus—that in turn provides the impetus for interrogating and critiquing social inequalities. When Makhmalbaf makes his inevitable appearance at the film’s conclusion, his figure threatening to impose order on the film’s messy social and aesthetic egalitarianism, a (supposed) equipment malfunction mutes the conversation between the great director and his doppleganger, leaving the audience to imagine what is said. With this sublime, culminating gesture, Close-Up hands it off to the audience to continue the elusive hunt for truth.

Patrick Harrison

Close-Up plays March 26–April 1 at Film Forum in New York. For more details, click here.