In his first feature made outside his homeland, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami toys with the notion of originality in ways meant to invite the viewer to consider the relationship between art and the reality it claims to reflect.
Formally Kiarostami does this through the sort of picture he’s made—a sort of “Brief Encounter” set in Tuscany that recalls everything from “Voyage in Italy” to “L’Avventura.” The dramatic arc itself is deliberately derivative.
Then there’s the “argument,” in the literary as well as the figurative sense, of the piece. The male half of the central couple, James Miller (William Shimell), is a British author who’s come to Arezzo to lecture on his book, “Certified Copy,” which raises the question of why a reproduction of an artwork is never valued as much as the original, since the so-called original is really but a copy of its real-life model.
One of the people in the audience is an unnamed woman (Juliette Binoche), a wife with a precocious young son, who runs a cellar antiques shop, though its contents seem to all be copies. She invites the author for a drive around the area before he departs, including a trip to the local museum where a famous forgery has become the chief attraction. Along the way they debate the thesis of his book, growing more and more personal in the process.
By the time they get to the village of Lucignano and go to a trattoria, they’re acting so much like a long-term couple that the female owner assumes they’re married and offers the woman her views on relationships. And over dinner the two assume the parts of husband and wife, with her loudly complaining about her spouse’s long absences from home and him protesting that she doesn’t understand him.
The interaction between them becomes so intense that one wonders whether they’re strangers at all, or actually an estranged or separated couple. At one point the woman approaches the owner of a small hotel to ask permission to view the room where, she says, she and her husband spent their honeymoon.
Kiarostami is clearly playing with us here, but in the process he’s tossing around the sort of philosophical conundrums some people take seriously. Perhaps he is, too. But despite his apparently real interest in these issues, his picture never really connects on either an intellectual or an emotional level. Shimell, an opera singer turned actor, is pretty much a stiff, and certainly no match for Binoche, whose intensity utterly overshadows him (and whose scenes with her character’s young son in the first reel have a humane quality much of the rest of the picture lacks).
Kiarostami has a small clique of western admirers, but though it’s certainly more approachable than some of his recent Iranian films—which are more experiments than anything else—it’s still an arid, enigmatic oddity that has a good deal in common with the curiosities that Europeans often produced in the sixties and seventies. “Certified Copy” is more an act of cinematic provocation than an affecting drama, but it will pique the interest of more adventurous moviegoers.