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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on DVDs: Certified Copy, The Report


Certified Copy (Also Blu-ray) (Four Stars)

France/Italy/Iran: Abbas Kiarostami, 2010 (Criterion Collection)

When does love begin? When does it stop? And when is a painting a work of art?

The superb filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s first non-Iranian production, which ponders those questions,  is a jewel of that director‘s special brand of stylized cinematic realism, as well as a personal meditation (much like Orson Welles‘ F for Fake) on artistry and fakery. Translucent and crystal-clear in its imagery, yet opaque and mysterious in its meaning and narrative logic –it’s a story that turns, halfway though, into a different story with the same lead actors (a dissonant couple played by Juliette Binoche and William Shimell) but now cast as different characters.  Certified Copy is also a sort of copy, or inspired remake, of other classic European art films: most obviously Roberto Rossellini’s Strangers.

Made in Italy (seedbed of neorealism, homeland of Rossellini and De Sica), starring a French leading lady (the  subtle and lovely Binoche) as an antique dealer , and the  lesser known but gifted English leading man (Shimell) as a writer, this splendidly shot (by Luca Bigazzi), exquisitely beautiful European-Iranian co-production is partly one of Kiarostami’s chamber road movies — one of those Kiarostami pictures in which much of the action and dialogue transpire in a traveling car’s front seat with the image shifting between characters on the driver and passenger sides — and partly a dramatic travelogue and pastiche of Rossellini’s great but once controversial 1953 romantic drama Voyage in Italy (also called Strangers), which starred  Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders as a couple on Italian vacation whose marriage is crumbling.

The setting is in Tuscany, on the roads and in the  mountain villages and cities. Shimell (an opera star) plays James Miller, an opinionated and somewhat self-absorbed best-selling author, who has just written a prise-wining book on the validity of artistic or painterly copying. Binoche plays an unnamed single mother (the credits call her “She” or “Elle”) who takes Miller on a day date and drive in the country, from Arezzo (site of a Miller lecture) to Lucignano (a city celebrated as a wedding site). Elle likes to argue and provoke and meet new people. James is sardonic, maybe a touch too narcissistic. Are they a couple? Somewhere along the way the two turn into something different. They begin impersonating, or perhaps  revealing themselves, as a long-married pair (one with severe problems, like Bergman and Sanders), and they slide into these new roles, and this greater intimacy, with strange, unexplained fullness.

Several things could be happening here. The two could be role-playing — either in the first part or in the second part of the story — pretending they’ve just met, or pretending they’ve been married for fifteen years.. Or they could be leaping forward suddenly, through the magic of cinema, from the time they first met, to another time fifteen years later. Or the entire film could be a piece of artifice, a copy of an art film on various levels. If you want the answer, Kiarostami (who has been single much of his working life) gives it to us in the first part of a 2010 Criterion interview in the DVD extras disc. It surprised me. 

The story of Certified Copy, according to Godfrey Cheshire’s fine essay, comes from a tale of two people that director Kiarostami once told to Binoche in Tehran: a story he initially claimed was true, and had actually happened to him, but which he later confessed was a fabrication. The movie, which retells that anecdote, or joke, or fantasy, or dream, is enigmatic and will bewilder some. Yet it’s also often mesmerizing, the work of a director who is a master ot fiction film (Taste of Cherry), a master of documentary (Homework), and a master at mixing the two (Close-Up) . It is  full of talk and ideas and emotions, but it also feels as natural as breathing.

Japan’s Akira Kurosawa, expressing his sorrow at the death of India’s Satyajit Ray, named Kiarostami as Ray’s  successor as a master film realist, and Certified Copy does recall some of the middle and late works of the nonpareil Ray (The Home and the World), in its beauty, its precise style and its acute psychological drama. Kiarostami though, is really one of a kind. He‘s a filmmaker like no one else, even when he makes a certified (or uncertified) copy of a film by another great colleague, like Rossellini or Ray, or in another great tradition — in the mode of Strangers or L’Avventura or Eternity and a Day.

Even working in more unfamiliar settings and stranger cultures, in a foreign country and in different languages, this champion of  Iranian moviemakers remains a true artist—a yarn-spinner perhaps, and a tall tale-teller, but no fake. Bravo Kiarostami. Bravo all great artists. And all great copyists. (In Italian, French and English with English subtitles.)

Also: The feature The Report (Iran: Abbas Kiarostami, 1977) Three and a Half Stars. Based on the failure of his own marriage, this fine, humane, highly personal and keenly observant (and very rare) early feature by Kiarostami is yet another look at a disintegrating male-female relationship and a husband and wife at odds with each other: in this case, a selfish tax collector  accused of soliciting bribes and his neglected and embittered wife. (Kiarostami’s sympathies, interestingly, are clearly with the wife and he is very hard on the character, the husband, drawn from himself.) 

Kiarostami, who is often most notable for his portrayals of poverty, children and ordinary people, seems surprisingly comfortable in this niddle class, adult, educated milieu — which is close to his own. The Report was one of his earliest features and all negatives of it were destroyed in the Khomeini revolution; you can tell why this non-censorious portrayal of a Westernized, more liberal  Iran would have displeased an Ayatollah. (This DVD version  was struck from a video made from a used, damaged print, with some lines; it still looks good.)

But though the film shows a side of Kiarostami somewhat different from the one we expect, it’s very intelligently and movingly done. and it’s in the great Iranian cinema tradition. Its inclusion makes this Criterion release a must-have for the most demanding movie-lovers. With Kurosh Afsharpanah and Shohreh Aghdashloo. (In Iranian, with English subtitles.)

Extras: Making-Of  Documentary Let’s See “Certified Copy,” with interviews with Kiarostami, Binoche and Shimell; new interview with Kiarostami; Ttrailer; booklet with essay by Cheshire. 

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon