Marks in the Margin will join most Europeans and be on a holiday break (vacanze estive) for the rest of the summer. I hope you enjoy your summer and have a chance to read a good book or two.


Car-Free Florence

Three days ago on the streets outside the apartment I am renting in Florence there were no longer any cars whizzing by. Indeed, barriers manned by the Carabinieri were set in place that prohibited cars, taxis, trucks, buses, scooters, and motorcycles from entering the area. It was strangely weird and so very quiet and it remains so. Something seems missing, as if everyone has fled the city.

At first I thought it was temporary to block off the traffic during Festiva, Florence’s celebration of its patron saint. Eventually it became clear that was part of Florence’s rapidly expanding plan to increase the number of pedestrian friendly or car-free zones.

People were milling about, amiably chatting with one another on what otherwise would have been an area packed with noisy vehicles moving slowly, bumper to bumper between the many cars parked along each side of the street as those of us who were walking sought a safe place on the narrow sidewalks that are common throughout this city.

In a recent issue of the New Yorker Nicholas Leman writes about several new books that discuss the shifting trends in living in cities or suburbs. Edward Glaeser’s Triumph of the City, interested me most. According to Glaeser the key factor that makes a city successful is proximity, the way it brings people into contact, “enabling them to interact in rich, unexpected, productive ways.”

“In a big city, people can choose peers who share their interests, just as Monet and Cezanne found each other in nineteenth century Paris, or Belushi and Aykroyd found each other in twentieth-century Chicago.”

Florence is also one of the cities that epitomize Glaeser’s view of proximity. Its effects are precisely what I see happening on the streets outside my apartment now. When I’m here I often think of the extraordinarily creative period of the Renaissance in Florence. Leonardo, Michelangelo, Gaileo, Brunneleschi, Machiavelli, the Medicis--all working together, sometimes across the street from one another or down the block at bit.

Elsewhere I have written about Hillel Schocken and Malcolm Gladwell’s views of the experience of living in large metropolitan areas. Gladwell cites the work of Jane Jacobs:

“The miracle of Hudson Street, according to Jacobs, was created by the particular configuration of the streets and buildings of the neighborhood. Jacobs argued that when a neighborhood is oriented toward the street, when sidewalks are used for socializing and play and commerce, the users of that street are transformed by the resulting stimulation: they form relationships and casual contacts they would never have otherwise. Sparely populated suburbs may look appealing, she said, but without an active sidewalk life, without the frequent serendipitous interactions of many different people, "there is no public acquaintanceship, no foundation of public trust, no cross-connections with the necessary people."

When I first read that many years ago I was naturally struck by the lively public socializing that I have always observed in the neighborhoods here Florence. I doubt that the rarity of such encounters in America is because Italians are more outgoing than we are.

Rather I think it has more to do with almost haphazard way their cities have evolved over the centuries and the resulting relationship of the buildings to the street. The frequent socializing of the Italians occurs because their cities naturally invite fortuitous meetings between individuals as they stroll along the sidewalks or visit the piazza in their neighborhood.

“Now in Florence, when the air is red with the summer sunset and the campaniles begin to sound vespers and the day's work is done, everyone collects in the piazzas. The steps of Santa Maria del Fiore swarm with men of every rank and every class; artisans, merchants, teachers, arts, doctors, technicians, poets, scholars. A thousand minds, a thousand arguments; a lively intermingling of questions, problems, news of the latest happening, jokes; an inexhaustible play of language and thought, a vibrant curiosity;…all these spring into being, and then are spent. And this is the pleasure of the Florentine public.” Richard Goodwin

And Schocken, in his book, Intimate Anonymity, defines a city as: "a fixed place where people can form relations with others at various levels of intimacy, while remaining entirely anonymous." He concludes by noting: "The future of urbanism lies in the understanding that the city is a human event, not a sculpture." I am sure this is one of the secrets in the design of all good cities and the neighborhoods within them. It is surely one of the secrets of Florence.

Note: For a continuing discussion and superb photos of car-free cities throughout the world, including the most famous one in Italy, see the journal Car-Free Cities.


What is Social Psychology?

For years I taught and did research in experimental social psychology. In my day, the field emphasized the situational determinants of behavior, perhaps best exemplified by the studies of Stanley Milgram on obedience and disobedience to authority and Philip Zimbardo on behavior within simulated prisons.

There has been a marked change in the field since than, one that focuses less on the situation and more on the way a person views it. An example: It isn’t so much what you say, but what is heard.

I continue to believe the field is important as long as one is ever mindful of the extraordinary variability of behavior and the limits this places on its theories. How widely does the generalization apply--under all conditions and if not, which ones? Does it hold for me and how does this vary over the course of my lifetime?

Timothy Wilson, the author of Strangers to Ourselves, (“the most influential book I’ve ever read,” Malcolm Gladwell) and one of the most highly regarded social psychologists, recently gave an overview of the discipline on the Edge. As Wilson sees it, there are six very general ideas that guide the field today.

• It is not the objective environment that influences people but how they interpret it and the story they construct to account for why they acted the way they did.

• Recognizing the importance of unconscious processes on thought and behavior after a long period in which the field had ignored it.

• Individuals are often unaware of the true causes of their behavior. When they try to explain why they did what they did, they usually fall back on ad hoc theories or make one up.

• Individuals are poor predictors of how they will respond to future events. We usually overestimate the degree to which they will make us feel better or worse.

• One of the most effective ways to change dysfunctional behavior is to “edit” the stories individuals use to explain their behavior or “redirect” them in a more adaptive direction.

By way of illustration Wilson describes an intervention with students who were having a difficult time during their first year in college. The grades of students whose stories focused on their own failings improved “dramatically” when it was suggested their problems were normal for first year students, that it was the academic situation, rather than their own abilities that was responsible for their poor grades.

• Experimental tests of programs that address social problems can be fruitfully applied in determining if they work. Wilson cites two examples of an often-observed outcome of programs designed to reduce anti-social behavior.

When D.A.R.E., an anti-drug program that kids went through when they were in school, was tested with appropriate control groups, the findings revealed it not only didn’t work but it actually increased alcohol and smoking. Similarly a Scared Straight program designed to scare at-risk kids from a life of crime, increased the likelihood they would commit them.

In all such examples the results are formulated on the basis of a large sample of individuals. With evidence of this sort, one must ask is the effect a strong or weak one? What percent of the sample conforms to the general trend and is there any way to account for these differences? How confident can one be that any particular individual in the sample acted in accordance with the main outcome?

For me, the difficulties in answering these questions, difficulties that are inherent in the statistical methods used to analyze the results, are at the core of my disenchantment with social psychology and why it I am no longer very active in the field.


Fragments from Florence

It is the city itself—the city understood as a self; as a whole, a miraculously developed design. It is the city as what Italians call an insieme, an all-of-it-together. R.W.B. Lewis

Every June 24th Florence puts on a colorful celebration for its patron saint San Giovanni Battista. During the day, there are parades, concerts, a rowing competition along the Arno, much good cheer, and in the evening a fireworks show launched from the Piazza Michelangelo, a hillside square with a panoramic view of the city below.

The finals in a sport that is a combination of ruby, wrestling, and soccer also takes place in the afternoon at another square. It is said to be a rather bloody battle that has been cancelled in the past because of the violence among its spectators. While the match is scheduled this year, I have no desire to join the throng in attendance at this gladiator-like event.

The ease of walking everywhere is one of the delights of being in Florence. I walk to the market, to the bookstores, to the magazine stand and the trattorias that I go back to each year. This is what a city should be like, a place where everything is close by, it is not difficult to get by without a car, and as you saunter about the city, you are presented with one surprise after another.

Tomorrow the celebration continues with an event known as White Night in Nottarno in the Oltrarno (the other side of the Arno) when the shops, restaurants, and bars stay open well past midnight. Every piazza in the area will hold concerts and live performances. There will be street art demonstrations, late night dinners, jazz, Latino and rock concerts. Clearly there is far too much to do. What a place this is!

And yet at times I am taken aback when I read about the wartime experience of people who were living in Florence then. Now the streets are crowded, the people are smiling and there is gaiety everywhere. Then the streets were empty with threats of bombing and that knock on the door. The Jews were in hiding if they had not already been rounded up, everyone was hungry and had much to fear, there were worries about what the retreating Germans would do to their city and only hopes that the Allies would arrive soon.

“A grim long winter lies before us, at the end of which none of us can tell whether our homes will still be standing, or our children safe; and we must meet it with what we can muster of patience, courage, and hope” Iris Origo

The Parco Delle Cascine is an enormous park on the western edge of Florence that stretches along the Arno for miles. Over the years I have gone there often, first as a runner, then as a walker, and now as a picnicker. I marvel at how few people are usually there. Perhaps it is because the park is so vast and so heavily treed that the people are simply hidden in between the bushes and shrubs and down the long pathways that traverse the park from one end to the other.

The Number 7 bus takes travels up into the hills above city to the little town of Fiesole that was first a Roman and later Etruscan village and where I have dinner one night. On the bus trip back I sit down next to three young women who immediately try to engage me in conversation. I see at once that they are a little tipsy. So we have a lively conversation although they do not speak English and I do not speak Polish, their native language, or Italian which is what they are speaking or trying to speak to me.

Still we have a jolly time for a while, until another women approaches us and says with a note of exasperation that she can’t stand listening to us any longer. So she begins translating what everyone is saying, although I thought we were doing just fine before she comes to our “rescue.”

The three Polish women are heading for a pizza restaurant a little below Fiesole and they invite me to join them there. I had just eaten enough lasagna for all four of us, so regrettably I decline. Who knows what might have happened on that lovely evening up in the hills above the city of Florence had I accepted their invitation. In retrospect, I am glad that I had eaten a substantial dinner.


Journey to a Tuscan Villa

I’d like to invite you on a tour of an Italian retreat for writers, Santa Maddalena, located in the heart of Tuscany about a half-hour from Florence. It was the home of the writer Gregor Von Rezzori and his wife. When he died, she established the Santa Maddalena Foundation that offers visiting fellowships to four writers each year, as well supporting the Writers Festival described in my last two posts.

You don’t have to fly all night to Italy for this tour that will also include visits with some of well-known writers who have worked there. To see the beauty of this place, hear what it means to these writers, and be introduced to Rezzori’s wife, Baronessa Beatrice Monti della Corte von Rezzori, you need only watch two engaging videos included without additional charge on this no-cost, no-frills journey. How can you resist?

The Santa Maddalena utopia has been described this way: The land, located above a wooded ravine, has been transformed into a series of garden rooms….And an olive grove and pathway that link the house to the tower where many of the writers stay. Flower covered walls and groves of oak and chestnut trees mark the way to this former signal tower from the 15th century. Below, hidden by a screen of bamboo and trees is the pool and terrace.…There also is a vegetable garden with sun-ripen tomatoes in typical Italian style.

Recent fellows have included, Colm Tolbin, Michael Cunningham, Gary Shteyngart, and Zadie Smith (twice). Bruce Chatwin wrote of his visit: “The Tower is the place where I have always worked, clear headedly and well, in winter and in summer, by day or night - And the places you work well are the places you love most.”

Jens Christian Grondahl, a Danish writer, said, “Places reflect the people who have lived in them, and Santa Maddalena resonates and shimmers with the echoes and reflections of lives spent loving beautiful things."

The tour begins here:

And continues here:

Buon Viaggio


Why Write?

Zadie Smith was the featured speaker (Lectio Magistralis) at the Writers Festival (Festival degli Scrittori) I attended in Florence the other day. It was an odd presentation as we were given a pamphlet of her talk upon arriving that I was halfway through as she began reading it, word-by-word.

Meanwhile, the Italian version of her remarks was simultaneously shown on the screen behind the podium. I had expected at least a bit of spontaneity from Zadie Smith during this important lecture. There was none.

The title of her talk was Why Write? (Perche Scrivere?) and what I found most striking about it was the emphasis she placed on social factors in answering the question. She set the background by describing the bleak situation that confronts writers today, arguing that it is almost ridiculous to write a novel any more

There are few readers and it takes years to write one, let alone finding a publisher. If that hurdle is passed, you struggle to preserve its copyright, suffer through all the criticism it receives and the abusive remarks of bloggers. At the same time she suggests this has always been true for the writers of any era.

…Keats suffered the barbs of a few critics but never had to contend with half the internet calling him an asshole; Emily Bronte struggled to find an audience, but she wasn’t competing with a global audiovisual entertainment industry, cinema, television, online gaming, iPods, iPads, and tricked-out phones loaded with a lifetime’s worth of two-minute distractions.

Do writers consider all this misery as they put pen to pad of paper or pound away at the keyboard? I had imagined they rarely did, that they wrote because it was second nature to them or with only themselves in mind.

Why write then? If the act is so attendant with misery? Pope’s answer will be familiar to writers of all times and all ages. Because he couldn’t help it, any more than he could help his hump or his height.

But then she returns to the social factors in considering the question. She says that Pope also wrote to secure the approval of his peers and the opinions of his fellow writers. More so than the opinion of readers, and certainly more so than that of critics, whom he denigrates in the traditional way…

She cites Gregor von Rezzori to illustrate way writers are ever mindful of their readers. “It [the value of writing] has created a reality—and people are touched by it. I have this feeling. Do you? I saw this thing. Can I make you see it? I had this thought. Can you understand it? I am in this elation to death. Are you? I am wondering whether writing is possible. Are you?”

(Rezzori was an Austrian writer who married an Italian woman and together they settled in Tuscany. To honor Rezzori after he died, she established a foundation that supports a retreat for writers at their Tuscan villa, four of whom are offered resident fellowships each year (in 2009 Smith was one of them). As part of Florence Writers Festival, the foundation presents the Gregor von Rezzori Prize for the best work of foreign fiction translated in Italian.)

Smith continued that we write for other reasons too—because we are concerned with the “beauty in words and their right arrangement,” to engage in a dialogue with the wider world, “to counter that overwhelming sense of one’s own pointless,” and finally to see if we can, “that we do still have abilities, ideas and means of communication that are our own…”

But her emphasis on the social context of the writing enterprise did surprise me. It is not an answer I would have given to the question Why Write? and I wonder how many real writers would attach such weight to it. Do Philip Roth or Ian McEwan think for a moment about their readers? Did Virginia Woolf or Jane Austen?

Writers will always write, regardless of the views or number of their readers--like Zadie Smith who still writes, even though she has her critics and must experience all the modern distractions she mentioned that compete with her best efforts.

However, Smith has not published a novel in six years. Her last book was a set of literary essays and recently she has become the monthly book reviewer for Harper’s Magazine. Has she given up on “the act that is so attendant with misery”?


Writing to Connect

I wanted to describe the world, because to live in an undescribed world was too lonely. Nicole Krauss

When I write something, I’m not really writing for anyone but myself. I’m not trying to impress, persuade, or communicate with someone. Rather I’m writing to see if I can and can do it reasonably well. At least that is what I thought until I read an essay by Jhumpa Lahiri which was soon thereafter reinforced in a lecture I heard Zadie Smith deliver.

In her essay New Yorker (June 13th-20th) essay Lahari says when she began to write it was to connect with another person. “When I began to make friends, writing was the vehicle. So that in the beginning, writing, like reading, was less a solitary pursuit than an attempt to connect with others. I did not write alone but with another student in my class at school.”

This statement brought me to a halt. I had just written about the preoccupation young people have today connecting via the various digital technologies available to them. I was worried that they no longer knew how to be alone and spend time with themselves. Lahiri’s statement implies that perhaps writers in all their solitude are simply doing the same thing—trying in their way to connect with other people.

This seemed to me a bit of an insight. Perhaps I’m not writing for myself, at least not exclusively. Rather I may be writing just as much for my readers, however few there are, in the manner I can connect with them best. And how much different is that than connecting with someone online or on your cellphone?

It has been said that we search for company in literature. Is that any different than searching for company online? Imagine a person who reads all day in the company of their fictional friends. Is this person doing anything different than a young kid texting all day or sending messages to their e-mail buddies?

Of course, these questions are difficult to answer. But Lahiri’s simple statement in her essay did bring them into focus.

In How to Read and Why Harold Bloom comments that the search for friendship is one of the reasons we read. “Because you can know, intimately only a very few people, and perhaps you never know them at all. After reading The Magic Mountain you know Hans Castorp thoroughly, and he is greatly worth knowing.”

Of course, we read for other reasons too and we surely write for an equal number of reasons. But perhaps one of them is the search for friendship. I may error in thinking that we might be motivated to write in order to communicate with our peers, our friends, and other largely anonymous readers. Perhaps this expands the notion of “connecting” too broadly so that it covers too much of what we do, thereby rendering it untestable.

I have written a fair amount on writing and until recently did not view as a social activity. But I’ve been led to reconsider that view in light of the stream of questions Lahiri’s essay led me to and, by a strange co-incidence, a lecture I heard Zadie Smith give the other day in Florence. To be continued.


Virtual Identity

We live in an age when private life is being destroyed.
Milan Kundera

Have you ever wanted to live in a monastery, a secular one where contemplation, rather than prayer is the order of the day? I think you have to be a peace with solitude in order to ever consider that kind of life. Of course, you don’t have to move into a remote monastery to live like that. It is enough to live alone and try your best to bracket the ordinary distractions that seem to have overtaken contemporary life.

Yesterday I went to an exhibition in Florence that was a multi-media reflection on the theme of Virtual Identity. It dealt with the emerging way we define our self, both personally and collectively in the new digital culture, where we are constantly available and interacting with smart phones, social networks, computers, etc. “In today’s communication society, one seems to exist only if traceable online and in the constant flow of information”

The exhibition echoed a theme that many have written about, concerned not so much with the nature of the “communication society” but rather it’s cost, what is lost, what we are not doing as a result of our constant need to connect. And what is lost is the experience of solitude, of being alone, and having time for reflection and mind wandering, if you will.

When asked by an interviewer “Do you need a lot of solitude to write?” James Salter replied: “Complete solitude. Although I’ve made notes for things and even written synopses sitting in trains or on park benches, for the complete composition of things I need absolute solitude, preferably an empty house.” I believe almost every writer would reply similarly.

Recently I read A Time to Keep Silence by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Fermor was a British author, scholar and soldier and a highly regarded travel writer. He died last week and was eulogized with much admiration. In A Time to Keep Silence he describes his life in a French monastery and how he responded at various stages to monastic silence and isolation.

“If my first days in the Abbey had been a period of depression, the unwinding process, after I had left, was ten times worse. The Abbey was at first a graveyard: the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity.”

He reports that after a painful period of adjustment he found that it was not long before he achieved a degree of peace and clarity of spirit that he had never known before.

He writes about the “staggering difference between life in the abbey and the world outside.” Indeed, I suspect most people today view monastic life as alien to their values and seem almost joyless. And I think this true for most forms of solitude that are often depicted as a lonely, boring type of existence.

In an essay, “One Hundred Fears of Solitude” published in Granta last year, Hal Crowther notes that the various digital communication techniques have destroyed the experience of silence, of autonomy, of privacy.

When his class was over one day“Two hundred students all pulled out their cellphones, called someone and said, “Where are you?” People want to connect.”

And later Crowther cites what a woman with a master’s degree told a reporter: “I lost my cellphone once. “I felt like my world had just ended. I had a breakdown on campus.”

In Exit Ghost Philip Roth writes, What had happened in these ten years for there suddenly to be so much to say—so much so pressing that it couldn’t wait to be said? Everywhere I walked, somebody was approaching me talking on a phone and someone was behind me talking on a phone. Inside the cars, the drivers were on the phone…For me it made the streets appear comic and the people ridiculous. And yet it seemed like a real tragedy, too. To eradicate the experience of separation must inevitable have a dramatic effect.

At dinner one night a few years ago at an outdoor café in Fiesole, a town in the hills above Florence, I observed a couple sitting silently together at their table. (Since then, I’ve seen this scene repeated over and over again.) Each one was holding their cell phone. I never saw them speaking to one another. Instead, they spent the entire time talking to someone on their phone. And when they were done speaking, they continued to fiddle with their gadget. I suspected they were searching for their e-mail messages or poking around the Web. I thought they were a couple on the verge of a meltdown.


E-Reader Update

I finally succumbed the other day and bought an e-reader—the iPad 2. It is my fourth (previously 1 Kindle and 2 iPads, each returned) attempt to come to terms with one of these gadgets.

The catalyst this time was the end of the $5 fee the New Yorker’s publisher was charging print subscribers to read the app version of the magazine. Subscribers are now able to download each issue of the magazine without any additional cost.

And since I was about to set foot in Italy once again, where the magazine is hard to find and if you do, it will always be two or three weeks old, probably older than the one you read before leaving. Now I can read it over here the morning it appears on the newsstands in New York. Since the new New Yorker has become much more politically and internationally focused than its former literary, cultural self, the articles don’t seem as dated as they might be when read weeks later.

To date I have enjoyed reading the magazine’s app. But I have not enjoyed being unable to highlight, copy, or save a passage of the text. I have tried and tried again to do this and have been uniformly unsuccessful. There is nothing on the Web that indicates it is possible. In response to my inquiry, the magazine sent the following reply:

Dear Subscriber:
At this time, highlighting and copying/ pasting is not a features in the app.

How disappointing! I am scarcely consoled by Sherry’s optimistic phrase, “At this time.” Maybe if enough readers voice their concern, as I have, the magazine will come around on this matter too.

Henceforth, when I read an issue on the iPad, I’ll have to have my laptop or a notepad on hand in order to copy anything and make occasional notes, both of which are part and parcel of the way I read the print edition or anything for that matter. And since the pages are not numbered, it is quite time consuming to try to find a passage sometime after finishing a piece.

I am currently getting used to the gadget. There are some books I will try to read and test what it is like to view films. There are several cinema apps (free) that look promising. And I’m embarrassed to admit that I have been playing a game, Words with Friends, with my wife. It’s a variation of Scrabble that she is a whiz at and when I manage to beat her, I am hoping that will be the end of my iPad game-playing-days. It is one heck of a time-waster.

In short, I see the iPad’s current limitations and some of its advantages for someone who primarily likes to read and watch films. Anything on the screen is bright and clear, like the quality of any Apple product, and to me that is a real advantage over the dull screen of the Kindle. There are an overwhelming number of tempting apps and those I prefer don’t cost a Euro.

This is a sort of status report. I’m not using the thing much. It remains to be seen whether I’ll ever get used to it or simply pass it on to someone else.


Banking in Italy

This is a door to an Italian bank, like the one I went to yesterday. Doors like this must be passed through to enter banks throughout this country. It isn’t the way you enter a US Bank, but here in Italy you just can’t walk into a bank at your pleasure.

Once you master the system in Italy, and it does take a bit of figuring out, you enter one door at a time, one person at a time, no more. First you have to press the enter (Entrata) button and if you don’t look like a threat to society, however they look these days and however that is determined, the door slides open and you walk into a small, narrow double-door chamber. So that’s the first door

You are now in an inner corridor, about the size of a small closet. Somehow you are inspected, although again you never know how, and if you pass muster, another door slides open and there you are, inside the bank. Eureka! You have made it. As you wipe the sweat off your brow, you finally can proceed to the counter.

I should note the procedure is reversed when you leave the bank. So you see it isn’t easy to transact your business at the bank or rob one for that matter.

In spite of these strict entry and exist requirements, much like getting in and out of an Ivy League college these days, banks are still robbed in Italy. According to a 2007 report in the Guardian, over 3000 bank robberies occurred in Italy the previous year, slightly more than half of those in all of Europe. And you know how many countries there are in Europe, don’t you?

You think you have a safe job working at an Italian bank? Wrong. According to the Guardian once again “bank clerks now face a one in 10 chance of being held up every year.”

“One Ferrara bank clerk, Stefano Bellettati, told La Repubblica that after being robbed nine times in 11 years, one heist stood out. "Four robbers with wigs and masks came in speaking English, French and Spanish among themselves to avoid identification and fled on bicycles."

One might wonder how they ever made it through those high-security, double-door entry closets. Perhaps they don’t have such systems outside of the major metropolitan areas. I am in the dark about this, although I suspect there are bank branches in neighborhoods outside the city center and small towns that may not have such tight security systems. I don’t doubt they cost a fair amount to procure and install.

I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising: People will find a way to do what they want regardless of how hard it is or the potential risk to them. Even trying to transact your business at your friendly Italian bank.


Sojourn in Tuscany

Marks in the Margin is going on Summer break as I’m off to Italy for a while. Postings, if any will be intermittent. In the meantime, you are welcome to browse the archives.

Vi auguro buona lettura molto durante l'estate.


Certified Copy

What is the difference between an original work of art and a copy? Can one put the same value on them? If not, why not? Does the distinction even matter? These are the questions initially raised in the movie Certified Copy and, on one interpretation the central theme of the film.

The film was written and directed by the Iranian Abbas Kiarostami. A woman, Juliette Binoche attends a lecture on copies of original works by an art historian, William Shimell. At the end of his presentation she goes to the podium to ask him a question, they converse for a while, and then she invites him to visit a nearby village in Tuscany with her.

Who could ask for more—an interesting question, two handsome actors, wandering through a Tuscan village? As they drive through the countryside, they continue to talk. The talk seems strange. It isn’t the sort of conversation you have with a stranger. You wonder if they might actually know one another after all, as she begins to flirt with him and then argue a bit. The owner of the café assumes they are married.

What is going on? What does Kiarostami mean by all this lofty discussion and incongruous talk?

You begin to interpret their conversation differently. You return to the original question. Are they re-enacting their marriage, creating a copy of the real thing? Is there a difference between the two?

You think perhaps they are married after all; perhaps they no longer live together. What fun to catch on or to think you catch on. You have that “I get it” feeling. Do you have to have a marriage like this to get it? Or is it obvious to everyone? It wasn’t to every moviegoer I spoke to about the film. And some of the reviewers were equally puzzled too.

Roger Ebert who I always count on for insight about the cinema confesses he isn’t sure what was going on. He writes, “Perhaps Kiarostami’s intention is to demonstrate how the reality is whatever the artist chooses, and that he can transfer from original art to copy in midstream. Or perhaps that’s not possible. Perhaps I have no idea what he’s demonstrating.”

And he concludes: “Is a skillful copy of the Mona Lisa less valuable than the original painting? What if the original had been lost? Would we treasure a copy? Such questions are raised by Certified Copy and not answered. Is raising them the point? Does Kiarostami know the answer? Does he care? At least we are engaged, and he does it well. Is that enough?….This is the best I can do with Certified Copy. Perhaps it was wrong of me to try.”

Come on, Roger--the re-enactment of their marriage is indistinguishable from their actual marriage. She wants to go somewhere; he doesn’t. She wants to have a meal; he isn’t hungry. She stops to have a conversation with some villagers; he walks on. Was their marriage any different? She wants him back; he is content in their separation. The roles they are playing in the story are duplicates of how they had always acted. The pas de deux of their marriage is their marriage.

As far as I’m concerned this is cinema at its best. It is also fiction at its best—an amusing story against a background of provocative questions, peopled by brainy individuals, wandering about the villages and countryside of Tuscany.