MARCH 17, 2011
In a Better World
Sony Pictures Classics
International Film Circuit
The wondrous Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami has made his first fiction feature outside Iran. Not only is it set in the West—in Italy—but the dialogue is in Italian, French, and English. First-rank film-makers are not always at their best away from home (Renoir and Antonioni in America, Bergman in Germany), but Certified Copy is authentically the work of the man who made Through the Olive Trees and Taste of Cherry.
This is pleasantly surprising. There is no director today who would seem less likely to prosper abroad. Yet, though Kiarostami’s work has been immersed in Iranian social-religious culture, this immersion has been so rich with human comprehension that, as is often the case in art, the national verity itself became a means to reach the global. As it happens, he has spent much of the last decade traveling and probing other sorts of filmmaking elsewhere. Here in Italy he is easily, comfortably based. This versatility, about which we might have had doubts, adds to his stature.
One of his themes in the past has been the discovery of other selves within the self, the resources and mysteries within an individual. Certified Copy treats this theme more lightly than his past work did, but still with this director’s quiet unfolding of the unusual in the usual. A man and a woman discover that, for a time at least, they can give being to two other people.
Kiarostami’s screenplay, adapted by Massoumeh Lahidji—another Iranian who seems comfortably “European”—begins in Arezzo. A French woman, an art dealer, lives there with her young son. To Arezzo comes James Miller, an American author on a book tour. He has written a book with the film’s title, and he is much concerned with the subject of originality. In a public talk he argues that originality is rare, that most of what we are has been inherited and will be passed on. The French woman—she is never given a name—attends his talk, and they meet. She says she can show him some relevant matters in the neighborhood, and he accepts her invitation, noting only that he must be back to catch a train at nine. (They converse in both French and English.)
Viewers may think they can foresee the pattern of the story, a romance conditioned by the clock. This, in fact, is true, but in an unforeseen way. After a visit to her studio, the French woman takes Miller to a gallery to see a drawing of a head. For a long time, that head was supposed to be ancient and valuable, but lately it was discovered that it is only a copy, about a couple of hundred years old, and its value has shrunk. This paradox, about a drawing that was once a prized work of art and is itself unchanged, is naturally of interest to the author of Certified Copy. He and she wander on, through luscious Tuscany, growing all the while more relaxed with each other.
They stop in a restaurant, and the amiable hostess—speaking Italian, of course—assumes that the pair are married. They do not correct her. The hostess’s supposition fits perfectly the appearance and behavior of this congenial couple, and almost immediately, without conference or plan, Miller and his new friend begin to speak like the married couple the hostess supposes them to be. The roles of husband and wife fit so snugly at this moment in this place that he and she, without any word about it, find themselves continuing to play husband and wife. There is no joshing in their role-playing, no quotation marks around their dialogue. They wander around a lovely town conversing in their new characters. Soon they even recall, so to speak, that this is the town where they spent their honeymoon. They go to the very hotel where they stayed and explain to the clerk why they would like to have a look at their old room. There she relaxes on the bed, and, still playing the role of wife, invites him to join her. Suddenly, pressed by this invitation, Miller returns to Miller, returns to outer reality. He reminds her that he has to catch a train at nine. They drop their roles.
But for a seemingly knowledgeable afternoon, these two have been selfcertified copies of two other people. Under Kiarostami’s hand, they have found in themselves two other credible people whom they might have been instead of themselves. The implication is that, generally undiscovered, other people dwell within us. The film in a gentle way iterates Whitman’s “I contain multitudes.”
Juliette Binoche, who plays the woman, is a new experience for Kiarostami: he has never before worked with an international star. They have been of value to each other: he has helped her to grace his picture with vitality, wit, temperament, and a tacit sense of adventure. Miller is played by William Shimell, an English opera singer who here makes his acting debut. Pleasantly he fills the space he occupies in the story, never as scintillating as Binoche but solid and appealing.
Kiarostami’s style remains simple, unadorned, immediate. His directing once again fits his theme. Miller and the woman do a great deal of walking in the picture, on their visits to one place and another. Nothing is made of this walking, it simply occurs—yet in itself it underscores movement from one sphere to another. This picture, not nearly as deep as some of his past work, in its very agility adds dimension to this director. It seems that there is another self in Kiarostami, too, and we can hope that more selves will follow.
By now one astonishment of film is commonplace. Numberless pictures through the decades have brought us astonishing performances by children. How do they do it? How can they understand experience, experience they have never had, so well that they can reproduce it so convincingly? All children like to pretend, but acting is not pretense, or mere pretense. And how can they do it at exactly the moment needed? Of course children also sometimes astonish us in the theater, but plays don’t often rely as much on children as films do. Look at the latest instance, a Danish picture called In a Better World.
Two boys of about ten, Markus Rygaard and William Jøhnk Nielsen, sustain this complex story. The adult actors are flawless, but their work would come to little if the boys were not up to their level. The thoroughly skilled director, Susanne Bier, has worked well with the older people. No surprise. But we wish we could have eavesdropped on her conversations with Markus and William. The subtle shades of doubt and introspection and secrecy that Bier evokes in them would please in the adult actors but are even more affecting in the boys. No, that isn’t quite true: it is only after we have been affected by them—when we consider the source—that we are more affected.
The original story was by Bier, who wrote the screenplay with Anders Thomas Jensen. The theme, not brand new, is the analogous moral struggles in parents’ and children’s lives. There are two settings, rural Denmark and an unnamed African country. Christian, played by William, is the son of a doctor who works in an African field hospital. (Christian’s mother is dead. He lives with his grandmother.) Elias, played by Markus, has a father who is often in London, so he lives with his mother, who is estranged from his father.
Counterpoints of the sort that Ozu used comically in I Was Born, But... are used here with gravity. The behavior of a school bully with the two boys is echoed with an experience that the doctor has with a roughneck. The boys’ attempt, with a homemade bomb, to avenge the doctor outlines something like the doctor’s experience with a native terrorist in his hospital. Elias suffers by his weak compliance with Christian in something like the way his father’s marriage is threatened by a different weakness. Possibly the most frightening of the issues is Christian’s belief that his father wished for his mother’s death (from cancer) in order to gain freedom. The father is shaken when he learns that his boy believes this—frightened because he doesn’t know how to prove its falsity.
The picture is economically edited by Pernille Bech Christensen: though we never feel jostled, we never see a frame too much. The music by Johan Söderqvist hums along helpfully on the fringe of things. The lighting by Jacob Marlow makes Denmark look as it is advertised— clean and refreshing. Bier has understood the difficulties in her bicontinental canvas and has handled them fearlessly. If her film occasionally reminds us of others, she has fought so well for reality—those boys!—that she holds us.
My Perestroika is a lively documentary about Russia by an American, Robin Hessman, who has lived there many years. Hessman was concerned with what she calls the last Soviet generation, those who were old enough to have been children under communism. She has selected five people in their forties in and around Moscow, has interviewed them intelligently, and has buttressed her film with newsreel clips and home movies.
The fates of the five under the new regime vary as widely as one would expect. One of the men has just opened his seventeenth shop of expensive French men’s shirts. Another, who was once a rock star, plays the banjo in the subway for handouts. A married couple teach in a school where they were once students. Another woman who had seemed headed for business success now scurries around the city servicing billiard tables.
None of us is going to acquire much that is politically new from this film, but it is enlightening to see how five individuals were affected by large historical events. They give us their responses to three eras, Communism, perestroika, and postperestroika Russia. Most of them voice bits of difference from what we might have expected. They agree on one point. One television practice is a joke to them now where once it would not have been funny: whenever there is a grim political crisis, Russian television interrupts the news with a film of Swan Lake. We—and now they—can suspect that, when the subsequent news reports follow, mythology has not completely disappeared.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic at The New Republic. This article originally ran in the April 7, 2011, issue of the magazine.