Monday, September 27, 2010

NYFF ’10: Certified Copy

It is a major 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 enjoyed at face value when it screens at the 48th New York Film Festival.

It is worth noting up front both Kiarostami and lead actress Juliette Binoche condemned the Iranian government’s arrest of his fellow filmmaker Jafar Panahi at Cannes, where she eventually won best actress honors for her work in Certified. One wonders if Kiarostami will have trouble shooting future projects outside the Islamist prison of Iran. At least in this case, he certainly made the most of his romantic Tuscan locales, which genuinely sparkle through cinematographer Luca Bigazzi’s lens.

As Certified opens the audience (both in the theater and in the film) are staring at an empty chair. Eventually, it is filled by British author James Miller, unapologetically late for his own book talk, though he cheerfully admits 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 value 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 have just heard some very smart discussions about grown-up issues, against an evocative La Dolce Vita backdrop.

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 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 nearly as impressive. He projects an elegant but manly presence quite befitting the character and his rich voice well serves the film’s heavy dialogue.

Ultimately, Certified is such an intelligent and inviting encounter, it overcomes any viewer resistance to its rather slippery nature. Indeed, it is a strange pleasure to submerse one’s self into, thanks to the charm of its leads and the craftsmanship of Kiarostami and his dp. One of the best selections of this year’s NYFF, Certified screens this Friday (10/1) and Sunday (10/3) at Alice Tully Hall. It is also worth noting, Panahi’s short The Accordion will also screen during the festival, accompanying Pablo Larraín’s Post Mortem next Monday (10/4) and Tuesday (10/5).