Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Playing with reality and art in Tuscany

An Iranian master travels to Italy, and asks provocative questions about the nature of art and reality.
The Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has taken a trip to Italy, and we’re better off for it. Certified Copy – Kiarostami’s tantalizing new movie – is that rare film with sophisticated aspirations realized without strain.

By following a couple around the Italian village of Lucignano, Kiarostami plays with the elusive nature of reality, and the difficulty of separating it from illusion. If that’s too heady for you, know that the movie also works as an easygoing look at relationship dynamics.

Here’s the set-up: A British author (William Shimell) visits the Tuscan town of Arezzo to give a lecture. Shimell’s James has written about the uneasy relationship between copies and originals.

Elle (Juliette Binoche), a French antiques dealer who’s living in Italy, arrives after the lecture has begun, and is further distracted when her teen-age son (Adrian Moore) shows up.

Distractions aside, Elle manages to hook up with James. She offers to show him around, deciding that a drive to nearby Lucignano would be perfect. He agrees, and off they go, talking about his ideas about art, her ideas about art, and other subjects that tend to veer toward abstraction.

When the locals begin treating Elle and James as a married couple, they decide to play along. Gradually, they begin acting like a real married couple.

They argue over his long absences from the marriage; they bicker about the way she treats their apparently exasperating son. It becomes increasingly clear that this 15-year fictional “marriage” has reached an impasse, a situation that gains in irony when we realize that many couples – filled with the joy of new love – come to Lucignano to marry.

One such couple asks James and Elle to take a picture with them. She’s willing; he has to be dragged into the photo. Character stands revealed.

As the movie progresses, it almost seems as if the characters themselves have begun to embody Kiarostami's questions about artistic authenticity. The issues between Elle and James seem quite real, even though they’ve told us they’re only pretending to be married. The copy begins to ring true. Or, as some have speculated, maybe Elle and James really are married.

On one level, Certified Copy resembles Richard Linklater’s paired movies Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, but Certified Copy goes beyond those movies to grapple with dizzying questions about the nature of art – all in an unobtrusive and plausible way.

To some, Certified Copy may seem like a slender story about two people playing a game that takes a serious turn. Nothing more. On that level, Bincohe’s impassioned performance contrasts nicely with Shimell’s cool portrayal of a man who spends entirely too much time in his head.

All of this encourages us to ask ourselves a provocative question. Isn’t every movie an illusion, a representation of reality that we treat as if it were real? There never was nor ever will be a Don Corleone, but the title character from The Godfather gives us vivid insights into the psyches of men who wield great power. Pick your own example.

By the end, Kiarostami’s “simple” little movie has opened to complexities that most movies avoid – the complexities of acting a role, the complexities of plumbing the depths of character and the complexities of male/female relationships, of course, but also -- and just as important -- the complexities of the ways in which we see and, therefore, convince ourselves to believe.

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