Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990) is the ultimate testimony to the superpower of the close-up shot, its ability to capture the thousand little things in the human face, and to dictate the way we feel. The documentary-fiction hybrid turns Hossein Sabzian, a young working-class man convicted of a petty and strange crime, into something of a dreamer and an artist, hero and a martyr, and the close-up shots — mid, extreme — go a long way in restoring dignity to the disgraced Sabzian.
Consider the first proper look we get of him — it comes 23 minutes into the film, when Kiarostami meets Sabzian at the prison — of his face tightly held in the frame, with the director’s back to the camera. You see his hardscrabble face, with its furrowed eyebrows, and scruffy beard, and you see a kind of nobility and grace. You listen to him explain himself — ‘I’m interested in art and film’ — and you’re looking at a film fan, not a small-time criminal.
But Kiarostami understands that there is a delusional, dark side to him too, and that’s why lights him in a certain way, his face half lit and half in shadow: a complex portrait of a complex man. Sabzian had fooled a family into believing that he is Mohsin Makhmalbaf, enjoyed their hospitality, and led them into thinking that he will make a film with them.
In his defence, Sabzian said that he was merely playing the role of his favourite filmmaker, and considering being an artist was a distant dream from where he was coming from, enjoying the love and attention of the family. With his close-up shots in the above mentioned scene and later, Kiarostami not only made Sabzian one of the most famous faces in cinema, but also reached for a truth that no other art-form can yield.