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In Tuscany in June 2009, roughly forty years after the beginning of his filmmaking career, Abbas Kiarostami started shooting his first dramatic feature made outside Iran, a film, moreover, performed in English, French, and Italian, rather than his native Farsi. The same month in Iran, the Ahmadinejad regime brutally suppressed massive protests by the so-called Green Movement over presidential elections that many suspected had been stolen. While the near simultaneity of Iran’s leading director decamping and its regime cracking down was clearly coincidental, its symbolism is undeniable. Certified Copy (2010), Kiarostami’s Tuscan excursion, is a nonpolitical film only if you find no political meaning in its loudest unspoken implication: “I can’t work in Iran anymore.”
Doubtless Kiarostami could still work in his native land if he was determined to, but since conditions for filmmakers there have grown more difficult in recent years, he has less reason to put himself through that now than ever. I’ve often heard Iranian directors say that the hardships of working in Iran are worth it because their art is so deeply rooted in their culture; world audiences, they feel, value their films in large part for their Iranian-ness. For Iran’s most celebrated director, however, a brand name in Western art houses since the 1990s, maintaining an identification with Iran is evidently not as much of a concern anymore; as an auteur, he now belongs to the world. But perhaps more crucially, this move can be understood in the context of a career that has been remarkable for its continual adventurousness. Every Kiarostami film represents a leap in a new direction, often a very risky one. Viewed from that angle, a film made outside Iran, in foreign languages, was perhaps a creative dare he couldn’t resist. But what kind of film would it be: a Kiarostami film that just happened to have foreign backdrops or a Western art film that just happened to be directed by Kiarostami?
Judging from the reviews when Certified Copy premiered at the Cannes Film Festival eleven months after its shooting commenced, the consensus on the above question was definitely that the latter was the case. And this may explain why there were notes of reservation, surprise, and sometimes even disdain among the general acclamation. To be sure, the film is recognizably Kiarostamian in many particulars, such as its use of long takes of extended conversations in automobiles and alleyways. But as a type of film, with its desultory chronicling of an implicitly romantic but also querulous and cryptic encounter between two very attractive middle-class intellectuals—an English writer and a French antiques dealer—who discuss art and life and their own peculiar travails against the irrepressibly picturesque stones and vistas of Tuscany, Certified Copy looks not only like a European art film but also like a specific subgenre of that form that was proudly exported, especially by France and Italy, from the fifties through the seventies.
No wonder some reviewers were restrained in their praise. Critics exist to supply definitions of artists, and the standard definition of Kiarostami has had far more to do with his cerebral Iranian-ness (however that is described) than with an affinity or kinship with any genus of European art cinema, especially one now effectively outmoded. For audiences, on the other hand, that correspondence was no handicap at all; quite the contrary, by all evidence. Certified Copy became an art-house hit across the West, Kiarostami’s highest-grossing film ever. And if audiences in America, say, were drawn to it by trailers promising a certain kind of Juliette Binoche film rather than any kind of Kiarostami film, what of it? When the box-office results were in, it was clear that Kiarostami had made another nervy leap and landed on his feet. With the advantage of some extra hindsight, it’s possible to add that those initial critical reactions had it only half-right: hidden beneath the alluring surface of a movie that confidently revives the conventions of a certain kind of European art cinema, there’s a quintessential Kiarostami film, one of the most deeply personal he has made.
In interviews, both Binoche and Kiarostami, who became friends in the nineties, have traced the film’s genesis to a conversation they had in Tehran, when he first told her the film’s story, which he said had actually happened to him. Binoche: “He said, ‘Do you believe me?’ I said, ‘Yes.’ And he said, ‘It’s not true!’ I burst out laughing . . . To this day, I’m sure he lived this story. Just as I’m sure he didn’t.” For his part, Kiarostami was no doubt being both evasive and truthful in saying that the story began to evolve as he told it to Binoche and watched her reactions; the actress’s vulnerability and sensitivity, “what I knew of her soul,” became part of his subject.
Like many Kiarostami fictions, Certified Copy opens with the matter-of-fact air of a documentary. The camera stares deadpan at a table that stands before an antique stone mantelpiece and contains two microphones, a bottle of water, and a copy of a book titled Copia conforme. At length, an Italian man comes in and sets up for the event that is to follow, a lecture before a small crowd in a hall in the town of Arezzo. Running late, the lecturer arrives. James Miller (William Shimell), a handsome, dapper English scholar, apologizes and thanks the crowd for their interest in his book, which he ruefully notes has been more appreciatively received in Italy than in England. From what we can tell of the book by his comments, it challenges conventional thinking about artworks by asserting the value of copies in relation to originals. But we hear no more than the opening of Miller’s lecture because our attention is diverted to a woman in the audience, who scribbles something on a piece of paper and hands it to the author’s translator, then follows her teenage son out of the hall and to a restaurant.
The interrupted lecture is typical of Kiarostami, whose films follow narrative pathways full of detours, diversions, and interruptions, some felicitous, others more jarring. The same is true of the emotional itineraries of his characters, as we are reminded when Miller, the following day, visits the antiques shop of the woman seen earlier (played by Binoche, she is never named but referred to only as Elle, or “She”). He has only a few hours before he must leave Arezzo. She would like to show him her shop, but he prefers the outdoors, so she offers him an excursion to the nearby town of Lucignano, famous as a site for weddings.
From the first, their conversation evinces an odd mix of attraction and antipathy. She seems dressed and primed to seduce, and has bought six copies of his book, but is also testy, cross, and quick to disagree with him. Cool and a bit distant, Miller remains polite but doesn’t refrain from verbally sparring with her. Once they’re in Lucignano, however, his greatest displeasure comes not from her but from the sight of young married couples, whose happiness he dismisses as an illusion sure to be cruelly burst in time.
Then, when the couple stop in a trattoria for coffee, something strange happens. After Miller steps outside to take a cell phone call, She begins a conversation with the woman running the café, who mistakes the two foreigners for a married couple and begins to offer comments and advice about the wisdom and necessity of marriage. In a shot where the woman leans over to whisper something (we never learn what) to She, and completely blocks the camera’s view of her, it may be said that the film goes through the looking glass. We become aware of this shift moments later, when the two main characters resume their conversation, and now speak to each other as a couple who have been married fifteen years. For the rest of the film, they maintain this relationship, as they wander through the town, dredging up old differences and disappointments, before ultimately finding their way to the hotel where they spent their wedding night and now make a touching but unsuccessful attempt at re-forming their original bond.
The first effect of this startling coup de cinéma is to take us out of the fiction by reminding us that it is a fiction. Once this happens, we are less able to relate to the two characters as people we might encounter in life than as artifices created by an artist whose motives can only be called opaque. I once described Kiarostami’s work as “a cinema of questions,” and the central twist in Certified Copy leaves us with many to ask. Which half of the film is “true”? Are these characters playacting in one or the other? Or could it be that the halves are competing falsehoods, or equally true in parallel universes? And how does this connect to all the talk about copies and originals, art and marriage?
In discussing the influence of poetry on his work, Kiarostami has often spoken of leaving gaps or elisions in his stories in order to invite or oblige the viewer to consciously participate in the creation of meaning. Certified Copy certainly qualifies as a variation on this technique; ultimately, we must determine what “happens” (or doesn’t) in the film, which means that our intentions regarding the characters (do we want them to be strangers or spouses, flirtatious or alienated?) are at least as important as Kiarostami’s. As for what he intends, both cinematically and personally, some of that may be discerned by pondering the two films that Certified Copy arguably has the most significant relationship to: Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1953) and Kiarostami’s own The Report (1977).
When Iran’s postrevolutionary cinema started getting international attention in the late 1980s, many critics saw it as owing a debt to Italian neorealism. While some of the parallels (shooting on location, using nonactors) can be attributed to exigencies of history and budget, others (social themes, a strong moral sense) no doubt represent actual lines of influence. Others still (the blending of documentary and fiction, the concern for physical environment) specifically link Kiarostami to Rossellini. But Voyage to Italy does not belong to the neorealist phase of Rossellini’s work. It is the third of four films he made with Ingrid Bergman, and was shot when their relationship was disintegrating, a fact that has led many to sense an autobiographical subtext in its story of an English couple (the husband is played by George Sanders) whose marriage comes to the brink of unraveling as they motor through Southern Italy.
Both the matter and the manner of Rossellini’s film resemble those of Kiarostami’s. The “thin” story line about unhappily married foreigners in Italy. The chilly husband and sensuous but unmoored wife. The difficulty in communication. The road trip that leads to the contemplation of various artworks. The emphasis on moments, gestures, and textures of place over plot. There’s even a religious emblem near the climax of each film (a processional in Rossellini’s, a church in Kiarostami’s) that seems to change the story’s emotional flow. In some senses, it may even be said that Kiarostami has made a “copy” of Voyage to Italy in Certified Copy. If so, could James Miller’s defense of copies be intended as a drolly proleptic assertion that the new film shouldn’t necessarily be considered inferior to its celebrated model?
Perhaps. But there’s also a sense, given the way Kiarostami’s films often meditate on cinema itself (an element he’s most responsible for introducing to Iranian film), that he’s concerned not just with what Voyage to Italy contains but also with what it represents. Initially derided in Italy, Rossellini’s film was later taken up by Eric Rohmer, Jacques Rivette, and other French critics, thereby becoming a foundational text in the nouvelle vague’s formulation of auteurist cinema. In retrospect, it seems clear that what made the film such a model for young critics aspiring to be filmmakers was both its idiosyncratic emphasis on style over storytelling and the feeling of great personal meaning in Rossellini’s account of the torturous relations of men and women (a combination that pointed toward such later masterworks as Antonioni’s L’avventura , Godard’s Contempt , and Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage ). It is this tradition in which Kiarostami situates himself in transitioning from Iran to Europe. Yet it’s also one to which he already belongs.
Prior to Iran’s 1979 revolution, Kiarostami made a number of shorts and two features. The second of these features, The Report, which has rarely been seen outside Iran (the present regime declined to distribute it due to its adult themes and proscribed content, including images of the last shah), is an acidic drama about the collapse of a marriage, and Kiarostami has stated that it was based on the events leading to his own divorce. (Asked why he didn’t leave Iran during the revolution, he once said, “Because there was a revolution going on in my own home.”) The film’s main characters are a fashionable middle-class Tehrani couple with a young son. While Kiarostami’s account of their growing antagonism and estrangement apportions blame to both sides, his portrait of the husband, a vain, foppish, and self-centered bureaucrat, is especially damning. When I asked Kiarostami if this young man was meant to represent a certain type of Iranian, he said that the characterization was a broadside aimed at no one but himself.
At other times, he told me emphatically that he would never make another film about marriage in Iran, since content restrictions in the Islamic Republic effectively bar a realistic depiction of adult intimacies. Given the chance to work outside Iran, it’s little wonder that he returned to that very subject. Effectively a companion piece to The Report (which is also included in this release), Certified Copy broods on marriage from the embittered perspective of a wounded survivor (Kiarostami has never remarried). Its divided story very precisely and poetically renders the contradiction at the heart of that perspective: marriage is essential, yet it is also impossible. In this sense, both halves of the narrative are true. The two people are strangers as well as a couple married for fifteen years. They will always be locked in this pose of thwarted intimacy; nothing can bridge the chasm that both connects and separates them.
As for who gets the blame for the standoff, She is certainly difficult, mercurial, and challenging. Yet She is also given credit for trying to restore the feeling that originally drew them together. When She ducks into the aforementioned church, it’s to remove her bra, a gesture that movingly unites the sensual and the spiritual. And it’s She who literally tries to return them to their marriage bed. It is he who refuses the gesture, as if unable or unwilling to break through the shell of his intellectual’s ego. The last shot of the film, where James Miller stares into a mirror at his own haggard face, not only tells us where the lion’s share of the blame belongs but also sums up the candid self-incrimination that makes Certified Copy such a remarkable instance of confessional cinema, cleverly cloaked in the raiment of a classic modernist European art film.
Godfrey Cheshire is a New York–based filmmaker and critic who has written extensively about Iranian cinema.