J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Kiarostami’s Certified Copy

It is a major international auteur’s first production outside his native Iran, featuring a British opera singer in his on-screen acting debut. Fittingly, their efforts were in service of a film that explicitly challenges notions of authenticity. While there is indeed a bit of narrative gamesmanship afoot, the sophistication and seductiveness of Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (trailer here) is such that it may be easily enjoyed (savored even) at face value (if you will) when it opens this Friday in New York.

The first sight the unhurried Certified slyly offers the audience (both in the theater and within the film) is an empty chair. Eventually, it is filled by British author James Miller, unapologetically late for his own book talk, cheerfully admitting he has no reasonable excuse. No matter. His baritone voice and erudite charm quickly wins back the restive crowd. However, one woman in the front row reluctantly leaves early, literally pulled away by her hungry son. Clearly, she has also fallen under the speaker’s spell, though she vehemently disagrees with Miller’s premise.

An amateur art historian, Miller wrote a treatise extolling the virtue of replicas, de-coupling notions of value and authenticity from each other. As an antiquities dealer, the unnamed woman sees things more conventionally, but even her son perceives her interest in the writer. In fact, she is visibly nervous when the writer agrees to meet her before his evening flight. They spar good-naturedly over aesthetics and soak up the stunning scenery—so far, so good.

Shortly after a woman mistakes them for a married couple though, the dynamic abruptly changes. The woman is now much more forceful, while the formerly suave man is suddenly petty and petulant. Are the characters play-acting or is Kiarostami playing with us? Either way, we are listening to some very smart discussions about grown-up issues, against an evocative La Dolce Vita backdrop. Kiarostami certainly made the most of his romantic Tuscan locales, which genuinely sparkle through cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s lens, while also hinting at the mysterious.

One of the world’s finest (and most beautiful) screen thespians, Binoche again demonstrates women can be sensitive and vulnerable, without being weak or compliant. As the nameless woman, she essentially takes on a number of roles so convincingly it makes it difficult to truly know what to make of Certified. In his first screen outing, opera singer William Shimell is very nearly as impressive. He projects an elegant but manly presence quite befitting the character, while his rich voice carries the film’s heavy dialogue with élan.

It is worth noting both Kiarostami and Binoche condemned the Iranian government’s arrest of their mutual friend, Jafar Panahi. In fact, the distraught Binoche’s tears made worldwide headlines during the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, where she justly won best actress honors for her work in Certified. One wonders if Kiarostami, who has collaborated with Panahi on several films (including Crimson Gold), will have trouble shooting future projects outside the Islamist prison of Iran, after forcefully speaking out against his persecution. At least, he made his Italian foray count.

Ultimately, Certified is such an intelligent and inviting encounter, it overcomes any viewer resistance to its rather slippery internal nature. Indeed, it is a strange pleasure to submerse one’s self into, thanks to the exceptional charm of its leads and the artful craftsmanship of Kiarostami. One of the best selections of last year’s New York Film Festival, Certified opens this Friday (3/11) in New York at the IFC Center.

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