The latest film from Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, Certified Copy begins with the same joke twice. While waiting for author James Miller (William Shimell) to give a lecture, his translator (Angelo Barbagallo) apologizes for James’ lateness and says, “He can’t blame the traffic; he is walking from upstairs.” The restless crowd responds with no audible laughter. Moments later James walks into the room and, unknowing that it has just been said, re-uses the same joke. This time several members of the crowd emit soft laughter. Within the first few minutes of the film, Kiarostami has already laid out his brilliant thesis: that when it comes to art, history, or even comedy the copy can have meaning in a way that makes it as valuable the original.
This sets up the audience nicely for the existential journey that is to follow in Certified Copy, a rich examination of art, love, and the authenticity of life. Kiarostami’s first film away from his home country hits every note just right and creates an environment that encompasses the viewer. With beautiful cinematography, pitch-perfect pacing, and fantastic performances from both leads Certified Copy is a certified hit.
Comparable to the films of Richard Linklater or David Mamet, Certified Copy is not about where the characters go, but the discussions they have along the way. At a small café, a barista mistakes James and Elle for a married couple and is never corrected. Then, without provocation, the two characters begin to play-act as if they were a married couple, immediately challenging the direction the narrative had been leading. Have these two characters known each other before? Are they so committed to proving the value of a copy over the original that they are going to continue this “copy” of marriage? Or are they a real married couple looking for some excitement?
Juliette Binoche is brilliant as the bubbly and enthusiastic leading lady, who seems to be leading the direction of the conversation for most of the film. The story moves along like a long-form improvised scene with each character continually providing a “yes, and…” to continue the flow of the story. Just like in any improvised stage scene, even the best performers are apt to occasionally break character, and Kiarostami seems to emphasize this by having the characters look directly at the camera, breaking the fourth wall. Just like Bertolt Brecht, Kiarostami never wants the viewer to forget that they are watching a piece of art, not a piece of life, so he often has the actors look straight into the camera to distract any audience members from moments of escapism they might be experiencing.
At the conclusion of Certified Copy, the audience will be left with far more questions than answers and the discussions that will be inspired are undoubtedly one of the greatest values of the film. Unlike author James Miller’s thesis that artistic copies can have equal value to their original, it is unlikely that Kiarostami’s film will be successfully imitated anytime soon.