When Abbas Kiarostami made his first appearance at the New York Film Festival, in 1992, I had the privilege of sitting next to him as moderator for his press conference; and so I can testify that the assembled film intelligentsia wanted him to be a wog. They meant it in the nicest way, of course.
“Mr. Kiarostami,” went the first question after the screening of And Life Goes On, “why did you use Western music at the end?”
The music, Kiarostami explained, conveyed the mood he had wanted. Next question?
“But this is an Iranian film,” a second journalist protested. “Why did you use Western music?”
Kiarostami repeated his answer, after which a third journalist asked why he had used Western music.
With a glint of impatience now flashing behind his tinted eyeglasses, Kiarostami said, “I think of Vivaldi the way I think of the sun. He belongs to everybody.”
That ought to settle the matter, I told myself. And yet, when the next journalist raised his hand, we heard, “Mr. Kiarostami, when the man was listening to the radio in his car, why did you use Western music? It sounded like Tangerine Dream.”
“It was the theme music for the radio news,” Kiarostami replied. “In Tehran, we hear it all day long.”
A reasonable answer; you might even call it a neorealistic one. But even so, a vocal faction of the audience clearly was not satisfied. Kiarostami had shirked his responsibility to be Iranian and nothing but.
The irony of this consumerist demand for authenticity—or rather for a supposed son of the third world to enact authenticity—was surely not lost on the director of Close-Up. Today, as Kiarostami’s new film Certified Copy enters US theaters, bringing with it an endless mirror play of originality and replication, a deeply insoluble puzzle about felt experience and play-acting, I think of the reception it got at the 2010 Cannes and New York festivals—ecstatic in some cases, but lukewarm or dismissive in many others—and wonder if Kiarostami’s problem once again might be insufficient wogitude.
The insufficiency arises from the film’s being his first feature made in Europe (we may discount a contribution to an anthology a few years ago): a French-Italian co-production shot in Tuscany, starring Juliette Binoche and the opera singer William Shimell. Not a speck of Farsi; not an Iranian in sight. Judging Certified Copy solely on this basis, a cynic might suspect that the film represented nothing more than a plush paid vacation for Kiarostami. But then, think of where you might have seen something like this before: an all-but-plotless travelogue set in Italy, tracking the interactions between a beautiful, vibrantly dissatisfied woman of ripe middle years (who speaks a fluent but accented English) and a sleek, silver-haired British gentleman given to smug pronouncements (addressed to her) and outbursts of disparagement (directed at the locals). True to its title, Certified Copy is an imitation—of Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia.
This is hardly the first time that Rossellini’s film has been mimicked. Godard did it in Contempt. Why should Kiarostami have any less right to do it now? Is one imitation more authentic than another? We’re getting into the topic announced in the first scene of Certified Copy, where a British author with dubious credentials (Shimell) appears before a small audience in Arezzo to lecture about his latest book. It is an art historical essay in praise of replicas, which have a long and noble tradition of their own, as he points out, and which deserve (in his view) to be accepted as equal to the original works. Joining the audience for this talk—tardily, raptly, distractedly, briefly—is a local antiques dealer (Binoche), who brings along her own replica: a teenage son.