On the one hand, Abbas Kiarostami’s intellectualized road trip plays a bit like a Linklater-style philosophical excursion. Two middle-aged strangers discuss art and authenticity while roaming around Tuscany and pretending to be a married couple at odds with one another after fifteen years together. The difference, however, is in the supposed couple’s culpability in the whole affair. Unlike the more upfront work from his Austin-based colleague, the brilliant Iranian director slyly shifts the couple’s perspective — instead of knowledgeably perpetuating the falsehood of their relationship, they instead seamlessly represent the relationship itself. The onus, it would seem, is on the audience to determine what’s real, what’s imagined, and where the fault-lines between the two may reside.
Juliette Binoche plays Elle, a single mother of a young teen boy, who owns a small art and antiques shop in Tuscany. She attends a lecture by the noted British academic James Miller (opera singer William Shimell), who has just published a book about the authenticity of art and the means by which the subjective experience of the work far surpasses that of the reality of its creation. The two meet later, ostensibly so he can sign some books for Elle and admire her shop, but the two decide to strike out in a car and drive to another town nearby. Once there, strolling down the streets and into and out of churches, cafes, and a piazza, their relationship begins to get more and more blurry, their set boundaries and understanding becoming something else entirely.
Whatever your conclusion may be, this isn’t some vacuum-sealed bit of intellectual prop, straining to build an argument about reality and perception. By not giving his characters — and by extension, the audience — the obvious out of having the whole thing be a put-on, Kiarostami has created a near organic experience for the viewer. His camera almost never leaves his two leads, but like an experienced magician, his deft slight-of-hand consistently creates well-crafted illusion we never see coming.
This Criterion BD edition also includes an earlier Kiarostami film, The Report, which engages in some similar sorts of themes; an interview with the director and an Italian doc on the making of the film.
Piers Marchant is a Philly-based writer and editor, and the EIC (and film critic) for two.one.five magazine (215mag.com). His reviews can be found on 215mag.com and his tumblr blog, Sweet Smell of Success. You can also follow him on twitter @kafkaesque83.
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