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Realism in Kiarostami’s Two Masterpieces

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

In the wake of a burgeoning post-war austerity in the late forties, the Italian film scene underwent a paradigm shift which was a novelty in the history of cinema itself. If films were once associated with unreal, ideal worlds- which many were- these Italian films came with a different outlook. They began portraying the real, the seemingly un-special everyday living experiences of people at the lower end of the economy. For these people, surviving was a tale on its own and for the movies, these tales- with its simplicities, incongruities, and even absurdities- became the locus. And to strengthen the reality of acting in such movies, non-actors were commonly featured in lead roles. Popularly known as the Italian neorealism, this film movement produced works like “Bicycle Thieves” (1948) and “Umberto-D” (1952) which are equally acclaimed today.

The Italian neorealism can be situated within a broader philosophical position in the intellectual tradition of film theory: realism, the idea that all films essentially portray what is real. If not, why are we hooked to movies? Why do we relate to them? But one can also ask: what is so real about “Star Wars” or “Harry Potter” then? Forget the interstellar adventures and Hogwarts for a second- are we drawn, perhaps, to their tales of friendship and love which we are so close to? As Orhan Pamuk writes, “All true literature rises from the childish, hopeful certainty that all people resemble one another.

There is, of course, no clear answer. Many filmmakers play within this film-reality axiom, while many do not. But the late Iranian writer-director, Abbas Kiarostami, is one of those rare magicians whose works are based on a towering magnitude of realism. But at the same time, his cinemas blend the ontologically distinct real and film, in that process revealing works of a sophisticated imagination and artistry. Two of his most acclaimed movies, “Taste of Cherry” (1997) and “Close-Up” (1990) notably embody that archetypal Kiarostami method. The story, the acting, and the camera- Kiarostami’s ingenuousness helps every viewer find a film connoisseur in them. Think deep, there’s the beauty in trivialities, he seems to say.      

It is said that Homayoun Ershadi, who played the protagonist in “Taste of Cherry”- and who later went on to star in the Hollywood adaptation of “The Kite Runner”- was picked up by Kiarostami, literally, from the roads of Tehran. Ershadi used to be an architect, who one day happened to drive on a busy road when Kiarostami took notice of him and offered the role of Mr. Badii. In the movie, Mr. Badii- who is planning to end his life, sets off on a quest to find people who can bury him after he dies. The entire movie is about Mr. Badii driving his car, meeting prospective helpers, losing some, and in the end finding one. Kiarostami employs only a handful of camera shots, much of which is focused on Mr. Badii, hidden behind whom is Ershadi, and upon whom most of the movie’s realism rests. Some of it goes to the simple, linear plot which is only about a day in the life of Mr. Badii, and perhaps his final one; it is as if the cameras are just following him. 

But the movie does not really get to the end. Or call it whatever you like, there is almost a metaphysical discontinuity within the movie, as the film world of Mr. Badii ruptures. We are then shown the “real world” in light of the former, both distinct in their chromatic and spatial-temporal makeup. Actor and director sharing a cigarette or two; cameramen sliding through bushes and many more. The experience is almost mystical, I don’t want to spoil everything.

Then comes “Close-Up”, one of the pinnacles of Kiarostami’s artistry, and also of his realism. The movie, or docufiction as it is more commonly known, is the re-enactment of actual events surrounding the arrest of Hossain Sabzian, a man who had pretended to be Mohsen Makhmalbaf, the prominent Iranian writer-director, then well known for his films like “The Cyclist” (1987). Sabzian was no-good and poor to bare-bones, but he was a cinema-lover at heart, a Makhmalbaf fan. In a public bus, he struck up a conversation with a woman, pretending to be Makhmalbaf, and earning a quick acquaintance with her family. He was arrested later when the family grew suspicious of his character, and was later tried.

Kiarostami made a movie out of it, where all the roles were played by the real characters themselves. Sabzian plays himself, the family members and the woman on the bus play themselves. And most importantly, the real Mr. Makhmalbaf himself acts his part.  So does Kiarostami. The entire story, from the bus incidents to the court hearing, as it happened, was reenacted with Sabzian and the family role-playing as defendant and prosecuting family respectively. There are other added elements of course- the scenes of Sabzian’s arrest at the family’s house, the occasional close-up shots of a sliding empty can, or a jet flying above. 

However, one cannot forget to mention the unique Kiarostami moment that happens down there in the film somewhere. It is a moment of puzzle, a moment of transcendence, wherein “Close-Up”, the movie becomes a meta-movie. Yes, Sabzian and his story is still there, but there are new characters now- the film-crew themselves. It suddenly becomes a movie-about-a-movie on Sabzian. Here, the film-crew too are playing their own part.  Is this getting confusing?

What Kiarostami has tried to achieve here is to create a cinema in its purest, unadulterated form. This is, of course, assuming that the purpose of the film is to capture the real. Or isn’t that what seems to be the quest today, with evolving cameras, techniques, and expensive shooting in real locations? But where can you find the purity that Kiarostami depicts in his movies? After all, the acting can never get better or realer than that, for they are real people themselves. 

Or are there actors who can impersonate you better than yourself? It’s a disorienting question, and I leave it at that.              

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