Certified Copy / The Report (Criterion)

Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five):

Certified Copy **** 1/2
The Report **** 

Over the course of its 106-minute running time, Certified Copy primarily features two attractive people – Juliette Binoche and William Shimell – involved in a heated discussion about art and love. Their argument ultimately calls into question the fate of their own relationship. If this sounds like boiler plate “art house” fodder, it’s because it is. As Godfrey Cheshire remarks in the liner notes for Criterion’s release of Copy, the film “confidently revives a certain kind of European art cinema” – belonging to a tradition that includes My Voyage to Italy, My Dinner With Andre, and Richard Linklater’s Before films.

However, Certified Copy is also a film by Abbas Kiarostami, the idiosyncratic Iranian auteur whose films almost constitute a genre in themselves. Most of his films elasticize the line between documentary and fiction; plot points (in as much as they exist at all in a Kiarostami film) can’t be trusted to retain their initial significance.

From its opening scene, Certified Copy gently misdirects; an interpreter welcomes an Italian audience to an art lecture, apologizing for the lateness of the speaker. The interpreter is played by Angelo Barbagallo, who also happens to be one of the film’s producers, already adding a meta-layer to the proceedings. The lecturer is James Miller (opera singer William Shimell, making his film debut here), an art historian who has recently published a book exploring the possibility that facsimiles of masterpieces might be as legitimate as (or even better than) the original works. The copy’s merit, he argues, is based on the fact that it points toward the original.

The lecture is quietly intruded upon by a woman (Juliette Binoche) and her son (Adrian Moore). The woman scribbles a note, hands it to the interpreter, and then leaves with her son. The woman’s note is an invitation for Miller to come meet with her at her antiquities shop. By all appearances, she’s an uber-fan; upon their meeting, she presents six copies of Miller’s book for him to autograph and convinces him to accompany her on a daytrip to a local village.

Still, something’s off. For a fan, she’s instantly combative, teasing Miller about the absurdity of his thesis (“I wrote it to convince myself,” Miller shrugs) and, ultimately, refuting his claim that “a good copy is better than the original.” Following a long conversation in the car (a common location in Kiarostami films), the couple continue their dialogue in the Tuscan village of Lucignano, ducking through an art gallery, stopping in a café, observing her favorite statue (which he can’t stand), and ending up in a location that holds great significance for them both…

… and that’s the problem with reviewing Certified Copy. I can’t delve too much into specifics except to say that there’s a point in the village – almost exactly midway through the film – that the action and dialogue pass through a worm hole that completely revises our perceptions of Binoche’s character (who is listed in the credits as “she”) and her relationship to Miller.

The film is beautiful – Kiarostami and his world-class DP (Luca Bigazzi) take full advantage of the Tuscan setting, luxuriating in the golden light, timeless piazzas, and cypress-studded countryside. Bigazzi’s camera floats dexterously, forever pursuing - but never quite apprehending - the listless couple. The actors are fantastic (including Bunuel regular Jean-Claude Carriere in a small role) and Binoche and Shimell’s adapt perfectly to the film’s wonderful midway morph, just as they both slip in and out of French, Italian, and English without missing a beat.

certified copy tuscany

Though Copy has all the superficial ingredients of a commonplace rom-drama import – even Binoche, for God’s sake – Kiarostami deftly tweaks the material toward transcendence. As Miller says, “there’s nothing simple about being simple.”

The supplements to Criterion’s edition are superlative. The making-of documentary is a revelatory at Kiarostami’s process and features wonderfully candid insights from Binoche. An additional interview with Kiarostami essentially gives the director a chance to decode the film (and is therefore best saved for after the film).

Just as important as the release of Certified Copy is Criterion’s inclusion of Kiarostami’s second full-length feature, The Report (1977) as an extra on the disc. The film has been barely salvaged from a videotape transfer and is not quite up to Criterion’s usual standards. Characters will speak apparent paragraphs, only to yield a simple three-word subtitle. These are often grammatically off (my personal favorite: a character shouting “Youblastard!”) but easy enough to decipher. Despite these technical obstacles, The Report warrants a look almost as much as Certified Copy.

The film tells the story of a tax collector (Kurosh Afsharpanah) in pre-Ayatollah, economically depressed Tehran. The collector is caught in the grips of fatal inactivity; he’s unable to muster the strength to even answer his own phone. As a result, his life is collapsing. His wife (a young, beautiful Shohreh Aghdashloo) is fed up with his negligence, his job is dissolving, and his landlord is evicting him. Even his car won’t cooperate, as exemplified by a Sisyphian scene where he has to physically push it around city traffic to avoid getting a ticket. The tax collector’s been down so long it looks like up to him. “We’ll be in debt all of our lives,” he remarks casually to his wife, just before the bottom completely drops out of his marriage.


“Isn’t it a shame the way you mess up your lives,” a nurse observes late into the film. And The Report is all about watching a man reap what he sows – with all the sadness and humor inherent in that reality.

Many of Kiarostami’s idiosyncrasies are on display here: non-professional actors, long takes, meditative close-ups, seemingly insignificant soliloquies by marginal characters, and (yes) plenty of car interiors. More relevant is the film’s naked exploration of the dissolution of a relationship that seems doomed from the beginning. Like Certified Copy, it’s an honest look at men and women and how much love can hurt.

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