Monday, July 26, 2010

Movie Review: I Am Love

I Am Love ****
Directed by:
Luca Guadagnino
Written By: Luca Guadagnino & Barbara Alberti & Ivan Cotroneo & Walter Fasano.
Starring: Tilda Swinton (Emma Recchi), Flavio Parenti (Edoardo Recchi Jr.), Edoardo Gabbriellini (Antonio Biscaglia), Alba Rohrwacher (Elisabetta Recchi), Pippo Delbono (Tancredi Recchi), Diane Fleri (Eva Ugolini), Maria Paiato (Ida Roselli), Marisa Berenson (Allegra Recchi), Waris Ahluwalia (Mr. Kubelkian), Gabriele Ferzetti (Edoardo Recchi Sr.), Martina Codecasa (Delfina), Mattia Zaccaro (Gianluca Recchi).

The ghosts of Italy’s past – both political and cinematic – haunt every frame of Luca Guadagnino’s luscious new film I Am Love. Watching it, I was reminded of the themes in both Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist and Vittorio De Sica’s The Garden of Finzi Continis, where the reality of fascism breaks through to people in their opulent lifestyles. But in visual terms, the film owes more to the work of Luchino Visconti – particularly The Leopard – where the massive, beautiful surroundings threaten to overtake the characters, but somehow never does. Daringly though, I Am Love is not a period piece, but one set in the present day. While the film draws links to Italy’s fascist past, it is still grounded firmly in the present world of globalization.

Tilda Swinton gives a remarkable performance as Emma Recchi, the wife of a wealthy industrialist, Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), who has taken over the family business from his father (Gabriele Ferzetti). We first meet this family at a lavish birthday party for the father, who makes a great speech about his family’s legacy being written into Italian history. He started his factory as a young man, and has made the family exceedingly wealthy – but now it’s time to retire, and leave the company in the hands of Tancredi and his son, Edoardo (Flavio Parenti), who is now out of college and ready for the responsibility. The company is what has made the family great, and the grandfather makes a wonderful speech about morality and loyalty in business – ignoring the fact that during WWII, the company used cheap, Jewish slave labor to build itself up. A few months later, the grandfather is dead, and Tancredi is looking to sell the business – which doesn’t sit well with Edoardo who has bought his grandfather’s bull about morality and loyalty hook, line and sinker.

In the films first half, Guadagnino does a marvelous job at establishing all the players in the movie. It’s only in the films second half that Emma truly becomes the films protagonist. She was raised in Soviet era Russia, and married Tancredi who had travelled there is search of art and business (an early example of globalization). Coming to Italy, she hasn’t looked back since – becoming so Italian, she says she does not even remember her original first name, it having been supplanted by Emma when she moved. She mistook all the consumer freedom in Italy that she never experienced in the Soviet Union, for true freedom. But during the course of this movie, she will get a glimpse of what true freedom really means.

It all seems to start when she comes across a letter that her daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) sent to Edoardo. In it, she confesses to dumping her steady, respectable Italian boyfriend, because she has fallen in love with her older, female art teacher in London. Rather than being shocked or angered by Elisabetta’s effort at self actualization, it inspires Emma to set herself free. We have already seen her and Edoardo’s much poorer friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a chef, making eyes at each other but so far that is as far as things have gone. They go a step farther when Emma brings her mother in law (Maria Berenson) and her future daughter in law (Diane Fleri) to Antonio’s restaurant – under the guise of welcoming the daughter in law into the sisterhood of “Recchi wives”. But the lunch serves an entirely different purpose when Emma eats Antonio’s food – through a series of close-ups, Emma digs into the food with almost orgasmic delight, and from there she never looks back. It isn’t long before Antonio and Emma are having an affair.

It is also in the films second half that the themes in the movie truly start to take root. Emma is, in her own way, caught in a totalitarian regime herself. Her husband Tancredi seems nice, but he is never really there, and with his money, he truly does control her. Her son, Edoardo, is nicer, but more na├»ve and in two heartbreaking scenes near the end of the film, they both essentially say the same thing to her – that she no longer exists. It is also in this section where the reality of the business truly hits home, with the arrival of Mr. Kubelkian (Waris Ahluwalia), an Indian American businessman, who talks of globalization with phrases like “Commerce is democracy” and “War is a growth opportunity”. An old regime of fascism in Italy may have been toppled, but a new one – and this one global – is taking hold.

Swinton carries the film with her remarkable performance. I have no idea how she learned to speak Italian with a Russian accent, but she did, and she pulls it off remarkably well. But it is really in her quiet moments where she takes off – often not saying a word. The films devastating and brilliant climax is pulled off with her saying nothing, all because of the looks she exchanges with her family. She has lived under political fascism in the Soviet Union, economic fascism in her marriage, and she is finally breaking free to have true freedom – whatever it costs her, she no longer cares.

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