One Iranian film is in the Cannes competition and one Iranian director is missing.
The film is Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy, which drew both applause and a few disapproving boos at its press screening.
Who would have thought the filmmaker most associated with the austere poetic tradition of Iranian cinema would make - there's no other word for it - a romcom, starring Juliette Binoche, in French and English? Certified Copy plays like a combination of Richard Linklater's Before Sunset crossed with a Socratic dialogue.
But first a word on the Iranian director who isn't here. That's Jafar Panahi ( The White Balloon, The Circle, Offside) who was invited to be a member of this year's Cannes jury but has been in an Iranian jail without charge since March 1. The jury, at its initial press conference, left one vacant chair, with Panahi's name on it. Somehow, Panahi got a letter out to the Cannes officials, thanking them for supporting him. Part of the letter was read by French culture minister Frédéric Mitterrand from the top of the red carpet. On Monday, his Facebook page posted a notice saying that Panahi had just been hit with another two months imprisonment, as punishment for writing the note. As well, his home was raided and his family threatened with arrest if they spoke to the media.
Panahi, like several of Iran's top directors, can be considered a protégé of Kiarostami. The latter's 1997 Palme d'or for A Taste of Cherry was a pivotal moment for the international recognition of Iranian cinema, which is now being severely curtailed by the current regime. And yet the creative crackdown in Iran may paradoxically help internationalize Iranian cinema. Mohsen Makhmalbaf ( Kandahar), who moved to Paris in 2005 after the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has made two more films since then. Bahman Ghobadi ( Time for Drunken Horses) went into exile last year. Iranian-American filmmaker Ramin Bahrani has brought an Iranian sensibility to American subjects, in films like Goodbye Solo.
Kiarostami still lives in Tehran, where he has shot more than 40 films, although he has often found a warmer reception outside his country. In 2009, he was invited to contribute a segment in a 2009 portmanteau film called Tickets (along with Ken Loach and Ermanno Olmi), set on a train travelling through Italy. He returned there for his first European feature.
Certified Copy is about an English art writer, James (William Shimell), who arrives in Arezzo to promote the translated version of an art book that bears the movie's title. After a book reading, James meets an unnamed French single mother (Binoche), a local antique dealer, who has bought six copies of his book to give to friends.
She arranges to take him for a drive to a nearby town where they are mistaken for a couple. As a game, they begin play-acting the roles of a long-married husband and wife, leading past flirting right to bitter arguments about his road trips and her demanding ways. Binoche, as the slightly ditzy romantic who has a gift for calling the writer on his BS, is characteristically superb. Shimell, who's actually an opera singer rather than an actor, is not quite as convincing, but the film is often unexpectedly funny.
On the other hand, if Kiarostami can be mischievous, in Farsi he may be downright mystifying. But Certified Copy has a mushy heart that could win him a whole new fan base. How long will it be before we hear the latest Iranian auteur in exile has signed on to direct the next X-Men movie, or the next Disney family-vacation comedy?