Maybe one has to be married to understand Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy. And by then, of course, it's too late. Are-they-or-aren't-they identity games are usually more fun for the directors and actors than they are for audiences. It's a surprise, then, how much we feel for two people visiting the Medieval hill town of Lucignano in Tuscany, especially since the nature of their relationship—or rather, the duration of their ongoing quarrel—remains unclear.
The woman is Juliette Binoche, billed as "Elle" ("She"). She works in an antique store with all the light and charm of a catacomb. She comes up for air to attend the lecture of a visiting author and lecturer. Being a local, she wants to show the writer some local sights. James, who plays the author, is Kiarostami's real find: William Shimell, a British opera singer making his film debut. Shimell has a profile he's clearly proud of, yet he's approachable and self-deprecating.
Certified Copy reflects Rossellini's 1954 Voyage in Italy, which also concerns a complex feuding couple. Elle and James are headed to a small town popular with newlyweds; they see a jeweled golden tree, a fountain dedicated to familial bliss, an elderly married couple giving advice. Michelangelo's David makes a cameo in one of James' stories.
But it's slippery terrain to sneer at the art in this movie. Certified Copy is pointed at critics, just as it is aimed at the long-married types who mistake their spouses for pieces of furniture. It is Binoche who makes Certified Copy so heartbreaking: her seeking tenderness and approval from a man who won't bend. In her search for signs of hope, Binoche builds on what could have been just an interesting game of acting, and she, above anyone, makes Certified Copy a genuine masterpiece.
'Certified Copy' plays through April 7 at the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael; it opens Friday, April 8, at Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa.