This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Nathan’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
Another movie that I find brilliant and intellectually fascinating without being particularly enjoyable. Kiarostami works fast here to set the ground rules of his own cinematic approach to the true tale of a wide-eyed con artist posing as Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf; forgoing the use of actors, he blurs the lines between reality and performance with the same manic fervor as his subject, resulting in a film whose idea of "truth" is extremely elastic, and maybe in the end irrelevant. More than even something like Welles' F for Fake, this is a creation deeply conscious of the limits of film itself as a medium -- taking time out to explain the difference between a tight and a wide angle lens is a wonderful touch -- but for all its brevity it does run up against good old fashioned process-nerd boredom when so much of its running time is sucked up by 16mm footage of Hossain Sabzian's trial. Not to say his testimony, or the drama accessed therein, isn't interesting -- but this being a movie, we learn so much more when we're shown Kiarostami's interpretation of events rather than the mundane verbal laying-out of the same thing. It takes very little effort to expand this really quite small narrative -- the judge even points out that it's one of the less interesting cases he's working on -- into a broad treatise on cinema itself, not least because multiple characters (and director, obviously) are cinephiles, but this is more talk than practice in a movie that often directly shirks every tool a filmmaker normally has at his disposal, taking pains to "show the work," keep the flaws, and avoid the sensation of manipulation in the documentary scenes, while the reenactment scenes obviously serve as their slicker, more studied counterpart (and are wonderfully staged, and tense to boot). Would I have appreciated the film more if the lines were more blurred? Maybe, but who am I to say they weren't? I might be getting taken in by a bit of sleight of hand myself by saying this. But that's essentially my point: so much that's remarkable about this film is theoretical; watching it is engrossing and entertaining, but it generates impatience to get away and start contemplating. It's true that there's so much you can read into it, so many themes explored within its very limited snatch of a few moments of everyday life... but wouldn't that be the case for just about any limited snatch of everyday life, this one privileged only by the presence of a camera? Hey, I think I just stumbled upon Kiarostami's entire point.
The other problem is all me, and it's that I found the whole thing very humorous, almost to the point of feeling like a comedy sketch at times; which I wouldn't even mention except that scouring my friends' reviews and various forum threads, I can't find anyone else who felt this way. I'm not saying it's a knockout comedy, just that many subtle moments and deadpan reactions, particularly during Sabzian's tenure as "the director," hoarding eggs and bossing everyone around, struck me as extremely amusing... and I'm so heartless that at the touching conclusion, the image of him standing pathetically next to his onetime victim with flowers raised in the air made me giggle. Others report catharsis, a devastating moment of genuine forgiveness. The message: I'm a bad person.