William Shimell and Juliette Binoche in "Certified Copy,"… (Laurent Thurin Nal / IFC…)
Widely hailed as one of the world's most exciting filmmakers during the 1990s, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has spent most of the last decade seeming purposefully on the margins, making documentaries and experimental films. With "Certified Copy," which opened in Los Angeles and New York on Friday and will be available on cable video on demand March 23, he returns to narrative feature filmmaking while staking out bold new territory.
Shooting a feature outside Iran for the first time, Kiarostami has crafted an elusive look at art and love set amid the beauty of a small Tuscan town. A scholar (played by opera singer William Shimell in his first screen role) presents a new book on the authenticity of art. He is entreated by a visiting French gallery owner (Juliette Binoche) to while away the day, wandering the streets, talking, eating and passing the time.
The film hinges on a central question of just what is the relationship between the two characters — are they strangers or a long-time couple engaged in some sort of role-play? Are they wandering in some metaphysical/metaphorical space?
Binoche said she, Kiarostami and Shimell essentially agreed not to define the nature of the couple's relationship.
"My first question when I read the script was does she have schizophrenia she's not aware of?" recalled Binoche on the phone from France. "So I call Abbas and asked him what kind of illness she has. And he said, 'What illness? I don't know what you're talking about. It's you, it's just you.'"
"I didn't understand what he meant by that," she continued. "I figured out that it had to be true all the time. It was not up to me to make decisions whether they were together or playing a game or that they didn't know each other. I never took it from an outside point of view; every moment is true."
Kiarostami and Binoche first met on the international film festival circuit, and the two have been trying to find a project to work on together for some time. He met Shimell when more recently directing a stage production of "Cosi fan Tutte" in France. The filmmaker soon asked the singer if he would like a role in his next film.
"I'm still completely mystified," said Shimell, during a recent phone call from London, regarding why Kiarostami chose him to star in the film.
"Certified Copy" premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival — where Kiarostami had previously won the top prize with 1997's "Taste of Cherry." But in recent months, the filmmaker has faced constant questions, and even some criticism for making a film about art and romance at a time when his fellow Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof have been sentenced to prison for their work, with Panahi banned from returning to filmmaking.
"It's been quite frustrating actually," he said during a call from Iran via a translator. "Having a position, having an opinion about what is going on in my country is obvious. Of course I have an opinion. But when I've made a film, what's normal is to talk about the film and talk about art. I'm an artist, and what I wish to express myself about is my art.
"Recently, my work is taken as a pretext in a very permanent and insistent fashion to expressing opinions about the political situation, which is not my role," he added. "I've always had my personal opinions and I've always expressed them, but my role is not to spend all my energy on analyzing the political situation. This is not my skill, it's not my wish and it's not my relationship to life."
"He's not a topical filmmaker, never has been," noted Hamid Naficy, professor of film and media at Northwestern University and author of numerous books on Iranian cinema, during a recent call from the school's campus in Qatar. "He sings his own tune. There are ways to see his films as political, but I don't think it's necessary to see his films as being a political expression.
"In a way," Naficy continued, "the genius of Kiarostami is to appear to make almost no wave when he is making a grand gesture."
In returning to the world stage with his first narrative feature in nearly a decade, Kiarostami acknowledges that the simple fact of leaving Iran to make the film — and it was recently announced his next project will be shot in Japan — can in itself be read as a political statement.
"The fact that I made a film abroad with foreign actors, a foreign crew, in a foreign language, is a reaction to the policy of the Iranian government toward filmmakers and artists," Kiarostami said. "It is my way of resisting, but I express myself through my films. I made the decision to work abroad, which is my way of taking a position.
"If I can tell a story of this man and this woman and someone in the United States or elsewhere can relate to it regardless of their own culture or language it means the film and cinema are universal. Human beings are universal."