Working one's way through the usually mindless twaddle Hollywood has put out in recent yearsoriginal ideas, let alone intelligence, are hard to come byit is sometimes easy to forget just how much power and beauty the world of film has the capability to hold. When the extraordinary finally breaks through, it should be cherished and held up for all to see as an example of how often directors, screenwriters, producers, and studio execs sell themselves and their souls short, taking umpteenth creative shortcuts and foregoing inspiration in exchange for the financial bottom-line. Any old hack can make a completely derivative bad movie and reap the benefits that come with its pre-sold name recognition, but it takes a true, untarnished visionary to make something that deserves to stand the test of time. In a, thus far, disappointing year for cinema, with multiplexes being inundated week after week with uninspired remakes, countless sequels, and overpriced, greed-induced 3-D presentations, "I Am Love" may just single-handedly reignite a viewer's passion for the art form and rustle up newfound hope for its future. It did mine.
A passion project for writer-director Luca Guadagnino and actress Tilda Swinton (who, amazingly, learned to speak fluent Italian and Russian for the part), "I Am Love" is an intoxicating tour de force
bridging the gap between rich human drama, generous visual and thematic poeticism, and technical astonishment. A tale of one's identity lost, then reclaimed, the film builds the stakes high before knocking them down and seeing, for better or worse, where they may fall. High style frequently overshadows substance, but not here, the glorious imagery proving both meaningful and essential in the complimentary layers it adds to the characters' depth and conflicts. If that weren't enough, the operatic music score by John Adamsthe first ever for this Pulitzer Prize-winning composeronly adds to the narrative's sense of make-or-break immediacy, so rapturous as to steal the viewer's breath away.
The picture opens with a tranquil, if portentous, montage of wintry snapshots of Milan, the city blanketed by a fresh snowfall mirroring the repression that has weighed down for years on its central protagonist, Emma Recchi (Tilda Swinton). A Russian immigrant who married into a wealthy, generations-old Italian family of textile company heirs, Emma has more or less buried her own heritage while raising two children, now-grown son Edoardo (Flavio Parenti) and college-aged daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher), and played the part of a good wife to devoted spouse Tancredi (Pippo Delbono). First seen hosting a dinner party to celebrate the birthday of Recchi patriarch Edoardo Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti), who quietly rules over everyone else with a revered fist, Emma's and her family's lives are then picked up with "some months later." The elder Edoardo has died, the business passed down to the joint hands of son and grandson. While looking into turning the company into a global enterprise and subsequently selling it, the younger Edoardo has partnered up with young master chef Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) and begun their plans of opening a restaurant in San Remo. Meanwhile, Emma's discovery that Elisabetta has fallen in love with someone of the same sex at collegea truth that she is accepting of when her daughter confides in heris the partial catalyst for her respective self-awakening. When Emma methodically indulges in a secret love affair with Antonio, a sensuous younger man with a purer outlook on life and less regard for materialism than she has known in decades, it is a decision destined to move her ever closer to a tragedy and a fate that, good or bad, will be her own to live with.
"I Am Love" is nothing short of exquisite, a melodrama of big, but never inauthentic, emotions. Director Luca Guadagnino, breaking ground as an exciting female auteur worthy of standing alongside Sofia Coppola in her sheer handle on all things mise en scene
, brings an applause-worthy complexity to every shot. As the Recchi household is forthrightly depicted, the part-mansion, part-museum, part-mausoleum run by a full staff of dedicated cooks and housekeepers led by the invaluable Ida (Maria Paiato), the Recchissave for Emmaare ofttimes nowhere to be found. Edoardo and Elisabetta have, for the most part, moved out, while Tancredi is away on business several days out of the week. Emma's afternoons, filled with lunching and shopping and the aimless bewilderment of someone who long ago lost track of her personal aspirations, have grown repetitive and predictable. On her way to visit Elisabetta to search for possible exhibition spaces for her artwork, Emma takes advantage of her stop in San Remo to get closer to Antonio, whom she has only met a couple times before.
The sexual relationship they dive into thereafter is erotic and maybe a little dangerousin one encounter, their love-making among nature is nearly drowned out by the insects around thembut the film isn't really about their romance so much as it is about Emma's journey toward a place that gives her happiness, and the sacrifices she must make in order for this to happen. Does she remain in the safe, comfortable environment she has grown to know, or does she gamble the trust of her loved ones for her own sanity? As Emma's quandary is symbolized in her very surroundings, the ornate opulence of Italian architecture and statues seeminglyand deceptivelyindestructible, she slowly comes to terms with her own identity while breaking free from traditional expectations. In one stunning shot, the stone statues in a courtyard begin to weep as rain falls upon the city.
Tilda Swinton (2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
") is naturally front and center as Emma Recchi, and her performance is as remarkable as any that has been seen this year. Disregarding the impressive knowledge that she did not know Italian or Russian prior to shootingthose are the primary languages spokenSwinton brings a heartrending honesty and vulnerability to an intensely demanding, physically uninhibited role that requires a certain amount of bravery on the actress' part. It is important that Emma not come off as selfish or unfeeling, and she doesn't; it is very clear by the end that after all that has happened, the choices she has made are not going to cure all of her woes. The supporting characters, with significantly less screen time, resound with tenderness and sometimes loaded inferences, from Flavio Parenti and Alba Rohrwacher as son Edoardo and daughter Elisabetta, both of them on the verge of closing one chapter in their lives and opening a new, more truthful one; to Pippo Delbono as husband Tancredi, unaware of Emma's infidelity even as he suspects something isn't quite right between them; to the lovely Maria Paiato as lead housekeeper Ida, unsure of what she would do without Emma and the job she has dedicated her life to; to Diane Fleri, subtly shattering as Eva, Edoardo's beloved fiancée, who, through circumstances not dared to be revealed, finds herself an outsider with nowhere to turn and precious few to understand her pain. Even as the film remains focused on Emma, director Luca Guadagnino makes sure no one is forgotten about or getting off easy from their destinies.
Like a symphony in film, "I Am Love" has an exhilarating rhythm and language all its own, surpassing conventionality. The story is straightforward enough, but the beauty is in how it is told through all facets of the moviemaking process. The more one looks to the edges of the frame, the more that is revealed about the narrative and the people within. Each moment is impeccably filmed by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, taking lush, atmospheric advantage of the various Italian settings while pulling off mesmerizingly difficult feats, as in one scenean unbroken shotthat follows Emma down into the lower echelons of her home to steal a fleeting moment of connection with caterer Antonio in the cooks' quarters. If every visual is like a moving picture, the editing by Walter Fasano is stirring and electric in its equal parts grace and tempo. Timed to the magnificent music score, the cutting and corresponding use of sound as it reaches a crescendo keeps the pace floating along in a dreamlike frenzy and the viewer's interest consistently engaged. The final sequences, overflowing with urgency and pathos as Emma comes around to a final, irrevocable decision on where the next part of her life shall lead her, are staggering. In a modern filmic sea too often characterized by superfluousness and apathy, "I Am Love" is something of a miracle.