(Dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran/Italy, 2010)
Playing the Part
Venturing out of his native Iran for the first time, filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami explores the beautiful vistas of central Italy for this late-career feature. Despite the change of scenery and the presence of a world-renowned European actress, Certified Copy finds the acclaimed director in familiar territory, straddling the boundary between fiction and reality. Instead of providing an unusual (albeit brilliant) conclusion rooted in the latter (Taste of Cherry) or employing the techniques of cinéma verité (The Wind Will Carry Us, Ten), Certified Copy centers on the very premise of pushing that boundary to its limits.
Its opening scene introduces us to James Miller (opera singer William Shimell), an English essayist on tour in Tuscany to promote his latest book Copie conforme. He expounds on the thesis of his work to a group of listeners and thus presents the film’s overall theme. Miller boldly maintains that a copy of any piece of art provides just as much value as its original. “Art is not an easy subject to write about,” Miller admits after also confessing that he is not an expert in the field. One of the session’s attendees, a nameless (cleverly credited as simply ‘She’) small antique shop owner (Juliette Binoche), disagrees with the author’s notion but is intrigued by him nonetheless. Unable to stay for his entire presentation due to her impatient son, she invites Miller to her shop the next day.
The pair embarks on a daylong journey through the Italian countryside filled with wonderings, philosophizing, and disagreements. Their opinionated discourse keeps the two at a distance – one a frustrated single parent firmly rooted in reality, the other more interested in theoretical possibilities. These somewhat awkward exchanges between strangers mark the first half of the film, but a simple mistake made by a local barista alters the remainder of Kiarostami’s narrative. When Miller hurriedly exits a café to answer his phone, the woman takes him for our protagonist’s husband. The notion catches Binoche’s character unawares, but she seamlessly fills her role as wife and begins to gripe about her “husband’s” prolonged absences and his perceived interest in nothing but his work. Miller reenters, and she admits to entertaining the idea for the barista’s sake, but when they leave the café, there is an unsettling and distinct shift in their interaction. For the remainder of Kiarostami’s film, the pair engages in an unexpected role-playing of sorts that posits them as a bickering married couple of fifteen years reckoning with their fading love.
Kiarostami’s Certified Copy, while offering very few answers, becomes an intelligent meditation on the value of fiction versus truth, illusion versus reality, a copy versus its original. It challenges us to truly wrestle with this notion that affects the manner in which we engage art. Does a copy of the Mona Lisa, for example, hold any inherent value? Or is its worth in that it leads us to the original, thus certifying that piece’s value? The duo entertains these musings applying them to art but also eventually to relationships and real life scenarios. Early on our characters discuss Her sister Marie. For Marie, there is no difference between a copy and its original. For her, ignorance is bliss. Both characters agree that Marie’s outlook is simple, but they disagree on whether she should be applauded for it or corrected. Miller points to the inherent happiness in Marie’s simplicity, but Binoche’s character accuses him of reducing the value of something to its perception. Later on, seemingly contradicting herself, She admires a fountain statue of a woman resting her head on her lover’s shoulder. Miller dismisses her admiration as mere sentimentality, but she admonishes him to value the sculpture through its perceived meaning: in her case, a longing for that kind of love.
After an altercation at a restaurant, the two delving deeper into their roles as husband and wife, the film takes on a more morose tone as our saturnine characters wander like mere phantoms through the streets of the Italian village. Binoche’s shop owner uncharacteristically enters a church late in the film. Whether to pray or to remove a pesky article of clothing in private (as she claims), this house of God holds the possibility of deeply profound experiences. She leaves unchanged, but the two carefully watch an elderly couple literally clinging to one another presumably bound by covenantal love. Focusing on these passersby, Kiarostami possibly reveals his character’s intent. In feigning the complex love of a fifteen-year-old marriage, it appears our characters desperately seek an authentic experience. Ultimately, it’s impossible to fully dissect the filmmaker’s work as it remains beautifully contradictory, philosophical, and at times, mind-bending.
More than just a cerebral triumph, however, Certified Copy also boasts rather skilled filmmaking. There are unique flourishes here, truly indicative of Kiarostami’s handiwork: conversing characters in moving vehicles, atypical camera angles, long uninterrupted takes. In one such take, Kiarostami crafts a lovely shot that frames our characters through the windshield of a car while beautifully reflecting the surrounding architecture as they drive. Likewise, throughout the film, the camera pairs direct imagery with reflections in windows, doors, and mirrors highlighting the film’s overall theme.
Always more concerned with raising questions than providing answers, Kiarostami ends his film on a decidedly ambiguous note. Sitting on the steps of an inn where the couple apparently spent their wedding night, Miller admits to only shaving every other day – something She complained about earlier to the barista in his absence. Are they truly married? Is their love real? Or is it nothing more than a copy, a reproduction to certify the idea of authentic love? Kiarostami only complicates matters when the author reminds his companion that he must make it back to town to catch his train. We are given no answers to these questions, but we’re left to wrestle with another magnificent film by one of cinema’s greatest masters.