Saturday, January 14, 2012

A Tuscan Brainteaser - Certified Copy

I missed Abbas Kiarostami's latest film at the theater last summer but streamed it last night. It was worth the wait.

As the film opens a small group of Italians has gathered to hear a British author talk about his recent book, Certified Copy. He assures them he isn’t an art “scholar,” and exudes a modest arrogance in his assertion that the issue of authenticity in the art world is overblown. After all, most originals are renderings of something else, he points out—a landscape, a face—while a reproduction can be considered an “original” in its own right. This brief lecture sets the stage for the subsequent conversations between the scholar and a French antiques dealer who owns a shop in town, (Juliette Binoche), not only about art, but also about life and relationships.

Binoche had arrived at the last minute and left early to buy her difficult 11-year-old son a hamburger, after arranging to have the author come to her shop the next morning to sign the books she’d bought. Her son later teases her for falling in love with the man, though she has admitted she doesn’t like his book.

When the author (played by opera singer William Shimell, in his first film role) arrives the next morning, it’s pretty clear he doesn’t like her shop much, either, and they decide to go for a drive while he signs the books. As they drive around aimlessly they discuss art, though the conversation gets more personal as Shimell learns more about Binoche’s sister and her sister's stammering husband. Binoche looks on them as an ideal couple, simple people who have found contentment with one another and their lot in life. “There’s nothing simple about being simple,” is Shimell’s caustic reply.

They go to a small-town museum, then a café, then a historical building that’s become a popular wedding chapel. More talk about art and relationships, including Binoche’s difficult relationship with her son. One of the more interesting conversations is between Binoche and the woman running the café, who thinks the two are man and wife. He’s stepped out into the courtyard to take a call and Binoche plays along with the woman’s error. Though the barista thinks Binoche has a good marriage and an attentive husband, she's a staunch defender of even bad marriages, and sums up her position: “It would be stupid to ruin our lives for an ideal.”

That’s the film: Old World ambiance and cultured talk, sullied by the frustrations of being a single mother in a world where men can deliver lines such as, “Ultimately people must live their lives for themselves.” It contains one or two further odd wrinkles that I’ll leave it to viewers to discover for themselves. Suffice it to say that with Certified Copy, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has created a work that bears comparison with Roberto Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia or Antonioni’s La Notte, though it may be better than either of these post-war classics. (For a contemporary equivalent, let me describe it as an Until Sunrise for adults.)

It’s beautifully shot and rich in chiaroscuro. Even the reflections in the windshield of the car are gorgeous. So is Juliette Binoche, who won a well-deserved Best Actress award in Cannes for her quirky, mercurial performance. William Shimell has been widely criticized for his less animated role, but it seems to me he also does a good job. He's basically just killing time with a bright but anxious and slightly distaught woman he hardly knows until the evening train arrives, and he chooses his words carefully for a split-second before speaking, careful to balance truth and tact.

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