A Beautiful Voyage to Italy

Certified Copy (Copie conforme) ★★★★
(France/Italy, 106 min.)
Written and directed by: Abbas Kiarostami
Starring: Juliette Binoche, William Shimmell.
A beautiful voyage through Italy and a talky odyssey that wraps up just before sunset, Certified Copy is a glorious throwback to cinematic love stories. Juliette Binoche stars as an unnamed woman who wanders into a book reading a few minutes late. Her tardiness is excusable, though, since the lecturer, James, is unpunctual himself. James (William Shimmell) opens the film with a lecture on his new book, Certified Copy, which meditates upon the distinction between artistic originals and their copies.

With this opening speech, writer/director Abbas Kiarostami makes the premise of his film quite overt. This is a film about originality or lack thereof. It’s a bit startling for a film that emphasizes art to make its objective so plain, but anyone familiar with Kiarostami’s breakout film Close-up should expect no less. (Certified Copy’s is far less blunt than Close-up’s debate of documentary and fiction.) Nevertheless, the discussion of copies and originals continues when James visits the woman and she takes him on a road trip through Tuscany to take in some of Italy’s finest art. 

As she and James chat and contemplate the origins of artistic integrity, the pair displays a natural rapport and appears to have hit it off quite well. Kiarostami captures their prolonged conversations in equally lengthy long-takes: the aesthetic of the film is a lovely copy of life. At times, the couple’s overdrawn discussions of originals versus copies veer too far into semiotic abstraction, and the protagonists more resemble ostriches with their heads in the ground, rather than two damaged people in search of something. Despite the meanderings, Certified Copy certainly gives the audience something to contemplate.

Perhaps the richest aspect of the film is its own obscure originality. Many critics have already cited the film’s strong resemblance to Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film Viaggio in Italia (Voyage to Italy). The comparison is more than apt, as Certified Copy recalls the earlier film in both its narrative and its imagery. Voyage to Italy tells of a couple, played by Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders, who venture to Tuscany to sell their villa. During the trip, Ingrid Bergman’s Katherine sightsees around the Tuscan countryside. As her tour guide observes several antiquated landmarks, Katherine slowly begins to see the relics as a symbol of her own deteriorating marriage.  

Likewise, the conversations between James and his tour guide gradually reveal themselves to be more than simple dialogues on art. Kiarostami, however, avoids plagiarising Rossellini’s masterpiece as the seemingly on-the-nose orations of the opening act carefully outline a framework through which one can read Certified Copy as a resurrection of Voyage to Italy. As James says early on, “all people are mere copies of their ancestors.” By the end of Certified Copy, James and his companion observe an elderly couple strolling through a cobblestone piazza. The scene takes place roughly around the same point in Voyage to Italy where Katherine and Alex gaze upon a pair of exhumed corpses and see the remnants of their marriage. Certified Copy therefore animates the counterpoint couple, and gives its two romantics something equally beautiful to contemplate, but also something slightly different than audiences have seen before.
Certified Copy also distinguishes itself as its own work. At the very least, the switch to colour from the black and white of the 1954 Tuscany trip allows for some claim to originality. Additionally, the film eludes criticisms of familiarity because it acknowledges its homage quite openly. Certified Copy also evokes talky two-character love stories like Before Sunset/Before Sunrise, as well as at least a dozen Woody Allen films that capitalize on intellectual banter and two-shots. The film also resembles Last Year at Marienbad with its busy compositions and striking use of mirrors and statues. Certified Copy is almost as taxing as Marienbad, but it is arguably more accessible and rewarding.

Most importantly, though, Kiarostami lifts the effect of mirrors and statues to play upon the role of copies in everyday life. Is a reflection of a woman the real thing, or is it just a copy? Similarly, the film pulls out cellphones galore to offer contemporary examples of copy-communication; moreover, the film confronts the female character’s memories of romance by speculating whether her remembrances of love are equally valid to the original act that occurred years before. It seems that everything is a copy.
Selling the challenging material in every frame, though, is Juliette Binoche’s pitch-perfect performance as the perplexed tour guide. Binoche carries the lengthy dialogue with uncontrived grace. She’s as beautiful in the role of the fragile art enthusiast as Ingrid Bergman was fifty years ago.

Moviegoers who have not been fortunate enough to see many of the films paid homage to in Certified Copy might not be as amply rewarded by the film. Sadly, Voyage to Italy is not available on DVD, but this copy makes an acceptable substitute. For those who have seen – and loved – these classic films, Certified Copy is like a big plate of penne Toscana that one might devour in the Italian countryside. By the end, some moviegoers will find they’ve been so enrapt by Certified Copy that they’ve failed to notice the sauce and saliva dribbling down their chins. 

Certified Copy plays at The Bytowne today and Thursday.
It then screens at the World Exchange Empire 7 and The Mayfair.