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“Certified Copy” at the 48th New York Film Festival

Every once in awhile a movie comes along that rekindles the passion we cine-maniacs had when we first fell in love with art films. This year, The 48th New York Film Festival (running from September 24th through October 10th) presents one such cinephile’s wet dream in the form of “Certified Copy,” the latest from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, which also marks the 70-year-old master’s first cinematic foray outside his homeland.

Starring French enchantress Juliette Binoche, who nabbed the Best Actress prize in Cannes for her portrayal of an expat gallery owner residing in Tuscany, and British opera star William Shimell as the author she pursues, “Certified Copy” is nothing less than a modern-day masterpiece. It’s one of those rare spellbinders that quietly leave the audience unable to move until the very last credits roll.

As an auteur, Kiarostami has long been obsessed with that fine often-nonexistent line between truth and fiction. With “Certified Copy” he’s taken his pet theme one step further, creating a meditation on the importance – or rather unimportance – of authenticity and originality versus fakery and copies in art via two lead characters that pretend to be a long-married couple. Or are they actually long-lost lovers reuniting in a game? Like Alain Resnais’s French New Wave classic “Last Year at Marienbad,” which “Certified Copy” unapologetically echoes (even its lead actress got her start with Godard), we’re never quite sure what is real and what isn’t in this moving image art piece that by definition can never be more than a simulation of real life.

“There’s something not very simple about being simple,” states the aloof but charming James Miller, played by sexy silver-haired Shimell, as he’s taken for a ride through breathtaking Tuscany (glimpses of everyday life strikingly reflected on the front windshield of the car) by Binoche’s warm but defensive character identified only as “She.” “So where are we headed?” he then asks – and with a mere two lines he’s conveyed the essence of Kiarostami’s film. “Certified Copy” is deceptively simple. A gallerista escorts a visiting author – his book “Certified Copy” is a treatise in support of the inauthentic – through the clichéd Italian countryside where they’re mistaken for a married couple and decide to go along with the charade.

James scoffs at the notion of originality when even a priceless portrait is only a reproduction of the person sitting for the picture (not to mention all humans are merely DNA copies themselves). He wonders why the thousand-year-old trees they drive past aren’t valued like the ancient works of art in the museums. She takes him to one such museum to see a forgery considered to be as beautiful as the original. But soon their theoretical discussions turn to bickering, which morphs into heated arguments every bit as uncomfortably intimate as the most passionate lovemaking. They pretend to the point where the false becomes real (and vice-versa) and Kiarostami’s story becomes as winding and unpredictable as life itself.

As the characters unravel to reveal more only mysteries emerge. People change – or do they? Does the couple in fact know each other? Does anyone really know anyone? The only truth that’s crystal clear is that the value of any object or person lies firmly in how we perceive it or them. With our infinite number of different ways of seeing we project onto art, and onto one another, judging but also animating. From James’s indispensable eyeglasses to the characters’ addressing of the camera as if to each other, and staring into its lens as if into a mirror, their fictional lives are captured and meaningfully reflected back at us.

Cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, a veteran of Italian cinema, allows his lens to linger on one character while the other talks, and on the scenery outside while they chat together.

Kiarostami’s view takes in all of life – is searchingly connected to the bigger picture. From his opening shot of an empty podium, the impatient rustling of an unseen audience emanating off-screen, the director announces he’s concerned with creating a total immersive experience through images and sound above all else. Which, of course, begs the ultimate question. Is “Certified Copy” a true original or rather a nostalgic throwback to those kindred spirit Italian masters like Antonioni, a film in which once-upon-a-time Mastroianni would have played the starring role? The answer is an unequivocal yes.

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