Monday, July 26, 2010

"I Am Love" Captures Grand Passions Like Opera Does--A Film Review

"Io sono l'amore" ("I Am Love") tells the story of a wealthy Italian family adjusting to the globalization of their textile business, the insecurities of their grown children, and the infidelities of the wife and mother (Tilda Swinton) struggling to honor her Russian roots within this closed system.

It's a gorgeous, overheated, angry, fashionable, passionate, muddled, food-laden concoction that invites a viewer for a sophisticated wallow. (Sounds like Sunday afternoons with my Grandparents and their friends.... ). In spite of a few wrong turns, I enjoyed this film, and experienced the kind of catharsis that one has at a tragic opera, where you may chuckle  at yourself for succumbing to the gamut of sentiment and emotion.

“I Am Love” surrounds us with the seasons of Milan, its action and incidents occurring inside gorgeous villas, stylish cities, and the tranquil Italian countryside. It is a leisurely setting for the story of Emma (Swinton), her husband Tancredi, an art dealer, and her elder son Edoardo, a student athlete and businessman. At a lavish birthday party for Tancredi’s father at the start of the film, the patriarch turns over the family business to both Tancredi and Edoardo, each of whom have conflicting aspirations.

It’s a complex scene in which the characters and relationships are filled in like a mosaic, and the motives and conflicts are slowly revealed. In a later plot development, Emma discovers by accident that her daughter, who is attending art school, is involved with another woman. This revelation will create a bond between mother and daughter that will provide Emma with an advocate in her escape to her future life of passion with another outsider, the chef Antonio.

Antonio, Edoardo’s school friend, a fellow athlete and restaurateur, appears at the villa with a special dish he has prepared for the occasion.  Edoardo and Antonio are close, and plan to go into business together by opening a restaurant. What unfolds, in a mystical and poetic way, is how Emma meets Antonio, and slowly discovers her love for him during subsequent incidents in which he has an opportunity to cook for her. The sensual connections blossom into an irresistible physical attraction which explodes with abandon during a tryst in the country.

From there, the film appears to explore the idea of globalization by positioning the characters and their origins against each other, their conflicts and alliances illustrating the pros and cons of a world in which boundaries are blurred, yet regional and ethnic traditions still hold a powerful influence on our psyches. It is also a forceful parable about being overcome with love, and the risks inherent in following one’s heart at all costs.

The film seems uncertain about its attitudes toward maintaining familial roots, or whether it approves of a global world. But it’s the romance, and the tragedy borne of it, that carries us along on waves of melodrama. By the end, it’s a marvel of grand, irrational passions.

If I could change one thing about “I Am Love” it would be my desire to let the images breathe a little more. I would guess that two thirds of the movie is filmed using a telephoto lens, which is effective in intimate human drama, but washes out the opulence of the surroundings; these could have been put to better use as an enhancement to the themes of love and longing. With so much beauty all around them, why not use the fashions and the landscapes and the sets to the film’s advantage?

The performances are first-rate, and the actors are attractive and convincing. The young men in the cast outshine even the opulence of the sets. Swinton gives the role her all, and bares her soul (along with everything else). Seeing her also credited as a producer, the film comes close to appearing to be a vanity project for her;  but this character is very close to her heart, and she displays the full range of sensitivity, lust, maternal caring, fear, guilt, and rebellion.

I was enthralled by the appearance of Marissa Berenson in a large supporting role as the family matriarch. I would not have recognized the innocent Jewish bride of “Cabaret” or the aristocratic Lady Lyndon. She gives the most full-bodied performance I have ever seen from her, and her presence was a comfort to me, just as Sophia Loren’s recent return to the big screen reassured me.

This film is operatic in its resolution of the story for maximum anguish. Here, I have to describe what may be the most unusual explanation of a movie’s title I have yet seen. Emma and Tancredi are in bed watching the late show (when Late Show meant a televised classic movie). The film is “Philadelphia”, and the scene is Tom Hanks’ translation of the aria La Mama Morta from the opera“Andrea Chenier”. A recurring lyric in the aria is “I am love”. Otherwise, the scene has no bearing at all on this film. Those who know the aria understand that a celestial spirit has come to alleviate the singer’s suffering with a fatal kiss. As foreshadowing, it’s as obscure as you can get.

One  moment threw me out of the story and made me blurt an involuntary laugh: this was the second film in a row I had seen in which a found lock of hair supplied a clue to a character’s infidelity. This device should now be retired permanently. (I won’t spoil it by naming the other film, but those who read this journal regularly will have figured it out.)

“I Am Love” is in Italian with English subtitles. It has an authentic feel for the Italian way of thinking and feeling (which is usually exhausting and overabundant). As a meditation on love, loss, family ties, and global connections, it provides much to ponder, especially with one’s heart.

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