In an age where most blockbuster films are these intentionally obtuse puzzle boxes meant to inspire breathless hype and unattainable fan theories in anticipation of the next sequel or spin-off or universe adjacent television show, independent and international cinema seem to be the best alternative for something different. They are the best vehicles for providing audiences with contained experiences almost entirely absent of continued expectations. Even better, though, is when a film manages to ask questions for the viewer to take note of, while also asking the viewer to have the film just wash over them. Legendary Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami’s film Certified Copy (dir. Abbas Kiarostami, 2011) manages to strike that balance while also being one of the best films of the last ten years.
To set it up in the simplest way possible, Certified Copy is the story of an English writer who meets a French mother and they explore an Italian village. The writer (William Shimell) has just released a book arguing that, in regards to art, that every reproduction of a piece is, in itself, an original work so issues of authenticity are irrelevant. The mother (the always electric Juliette Binoche) is a fan of the book and wants to meet him. They meet, they talk, and they travel. But, eventually, they start to act like lovers who met a few years ago. They begin to talk in a mix of languages, inferring a familiarity with the others dialect and refer to the women’s son as “our son”. After a while longer, they switch again and now they are acting like a married couple on their anniversary. Kiarostami presents three distinct through lines in Certified Copy. The immediate instinct as an audience member is to try and decode which relationship is real and which one is fake, but I would argue this interpretation Kiarostami’s film makes the case that this guesswork is irrelevant. The replication is just as valuable artistically as the original.
It’s a message to be decoded that basically states that the idea of looking for something to decode can sometimes get in the way of the aesthetic and emotional enjoyment of a work. Not that there is even more to uncover upon close examination. The difference between originality and origination, thoughts about love and marriage, and the strain to presenting yourself as who you want to be to someone new are all other subjects Kiarostami brings up in the film. It’s only a small portion of the complex portrait he made with Certified Copy. The subtext is here if you want it, but wouldn’t it be much more fun to just come along for the ride?
Certified Copy is streaming on the Criterion Channel.