When I first saw the trailer to this movie, something did not compute: avant garde Iranian filmmaker Kiarostami helming a Tuscany-set romance, starring Juliette Binoche, and pitched to audiences as kind of a middle-aged Before Sunrise? Huh?
Well, it's true that the movie consists of Binoche, as alluring as ever, strolling around picturesque Italian villages with a handsome older English gentleman (opera singer William Shimell in his feature film debut). But we can tell from the start that something is amiss. The two foreigners - she lives with her young son selling antiques in town, he is a visiting writer promoting his book about forgeries in art history - don't exactly meet cute. Binoche is testy, short-tempered, and awkward around this cold if confident man. Is she crazy?
Hang in there, as halfway through the film, in a plot twist that unfolds beautifully slowly, Kiarostami reveals the reasons for her attitude. Or does he?
Of the director's previous features (Certified Copy is his first shot outside Iran), I have only seen The Taste of Cherry, but I understand he has a flair for exploring the gray area between reality and artifice in his work. This film's title is consistent with that theme, but what of the "reality" of Binoche's and Shimell's relationship? Well, professional critics and film festival veterans familiar with Kiarostami's work believe this reality is in doubt. For the rest of us, that plot twist seems like a pretty reliable revelation. It may make you immediately want to rewind the film and watch the first half again to see if you can spot the clues, but the second half is consistent with the revealed details. In short, the film may make you feel dumb if you read about it afterward.
In any event, we can all get a little something out of Kiarostami's philosophical, bittersweet insights into male/female relationships, and Binoche's performance is outstanding. I can't say that I loved Certified Copy, but it provides the kind of art house experience that adventurous audiences have savored since the late 1940s: it's exotic, challenging, and decidedly un-Hollywood.