Friday, July 16, 2010

Film Review: "I Am Love"

"I Am Love"
A film review by Jordan Overstreet

Director: Luca Guadagnino
Producer(s): The Works International
Screenplay: Luca Guadagnino and Barbara Alberti
Main players: Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabberiellini, Alba Rohrwacher, Pippo Delbono, and Marisa Berenson

With the divorce rate at fifty percent, the odds these days for a successful loving relationship are realistically slim to none. Perhaps Billy Wilder was right and the seven-year itch does exist, making monogamous relationships a thing of the past. Could Joseph Smith have stumbled upon the secret to a successful union? While the acquisition of long prairie skirts, a Gibson girl up-doo, and sister-wives remain taboos in my mind, could it really take more than two to tango? Katie Roiphe investigates if three really can be a company in a recent Harper’s Bazaar article entitled, “Liberated in Love: Can Open Marriage Work.” In her analysis, Roiphe exposes actress Tilda Swinton as practitioner of open marriage. This revelation about Luca Guadagnino’s leading lady in his recent Italian drama, “I Am Love,” brings an interesting contrast to the sheltered and very domesticated housewife Swinton portrays.

Layered with traditional opening credits, “I Am Love” begins with a tour of Milan in winter. The industrial capital of Italy is unrecognizable; it looks more like an Eastern European country or even a city in Russia. The presentation of the title credits and the traditional lettering invite the audience to return to an older era of women’s films starring the likes of Ingrid Bergman or Deborah Kerr, which used the romance of an extra-marital affair as a means for sending the leading lady on a voyage of self-discovery. Guadagnino introduces us to his protagonist, Emma Recchi (Swinton), a middle-aged woman of Russian decent who has married into the prominent Italian business family, the Reechis. When we first meet Emma, her servants surround her in her kitchen, evoking an image of Italian domesticity that implies Emma’s struggle to emulate the ideal Italian wife. She speaks perfect Italian, hosts the family dinner soirees, and never graces the screen in anything but a Chanel shift dress with a coordinating quilted tote in hand. As a mother of two grown children, Edo and Betta Reechi (Flavio Parenti and Alba Rohrwacher), Emma’s only outlet for expressing her Russian heritage is through the art of cooking (she is known for her of a traditional Russian fish soup which becomes the indicator of her deceit). Edo develops a strong friendship with a chef, Antonio Biscaglia (Edo Gabberiellini), and the two decide to open a restaurant. When Emma encounters Antonio for the first time, there is a flirtation; however, once Emma tastes Antonio’s cuisine, an intense--almost lightning striking--attraction exists between the two. This attraction is further bolstered when Emma’s immediate family flees to London (Betta to study and them men on urgent business) leaving her to travel alone to the Italian Riviera where she unexpectedly runs into Antonio during a shopping excursion. This chance meeting leads Antonio to extend an invitation to Emma to return with him to his home. Once inside, Emma strips off her clothing, freeing herself from her responsibilities as their two intensities unite; this transgression of her marital bond has serious consequences.

Swinton, despite being an Englishwoman, is very much at home in this Italian drama. The language rolls off her tongue with ease and her seven years of dedication to Guadagnino’s project has paid off. With recent credits including Michael Clayton and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Swinton continues to deliver with her various presentations of femininity. Her “Emma” reminds me of a Virginia Woolf heroine trapped in her daily domestic routine; furthermore, Swinton’s performance taps into the Wollstonecraftian school of thought regarding the rights of woman. When Swinton’s long strawberry locks are cut by her lover, we attribute this change in her appearance to signify her awakening and development of her own persona independent of her husband, Tancredi Reechi (Pippo Delbono). Swinton’s performance will surely be remembered come Oscar time. Unfortunately, I cannot see the same fate for the rest of the cast, all of which do their best despite the shortcomings of Guadagnino’s script.

However, the most compelling supporting performance comes from Alba Rohrwacher who plays Emma’s lesbian daughter, Betta. After an affair with a female professor at art school in London, Betta returns home with a pixie haircut and a new sexual preference. When she shares her self-awakening with her mother, Emma responds warmly and supports Betta’s transformation. The physical similarities between Rohrwacher and Swinton are unreal. It is almost as if Betta is the version of Emma that she could have become if she had not given up her identity to fit the Italian mold for women. There is an understanding between the two women, and when Emma ultimately leaves the family, Betta is the only one who can understand her mother’s flight.

What the film lacks in dialogue, it makes up in its presentation. Directorially speaking, Guadagnino soars as her presents love through the five senses. We see love through the dream sequences Emma experiences; we taste love as Emma devours Antonio’s entrees; we smell love when Antonio inhales Emma’s perfume; we feel love as Antonio and Emma passionately embrace; yet, the most profound sense Guadagnino allows the audience to experience is the sounds of love we hear through John Addams magnificent score.

“I Am Love” has recently been picked up by Sony Pictures Classic and is set to open in the United States in June. Despite the Italian language, I am sure Swinton will pack the art house cinema, allowing audience members to explore their own marriages and understand the dynamic that exists.

Film Review: "Of Gods and Men"

“Of Gods and Men”
A film review by Jordan Overstreet

Director: Xavier Beauvois
Producer(s): Armada Films, France 3 Cinema, Why Not Prods.
Screenplay: Xavier Beauvois and Etienne Comar
Main players: Lambert Wilson, Michael Lonsdale, Olivier Rabourdin, Philippe Laudenbach, Jacques Herlin, Loïc Pichon, Xavier Maly, and Jean-Marie Frin

Napping in the afternoon is a habit I broke back in my youth before I hit double digits. I leave the insides of eyelids for the over seventy crowd to date. This was before I saw an encore screening of Xavier Beauvois’ “Of Gods and Men” last Sunday at the Cannes Film Festival. Based on true events, the film seeks to explain the 1996 mysterious execution of seven French Catholic monks by a radical Muslim group in remote Algeria. You would imagine with a logline like that, focusing on the story would be a simple task; however, “Of Gods and Men” is visual Ambien.

“Of Gods and Men” follows the lives of nine monks whom run a monastery in a small, rural area of Algeria. The ensemble cast of aging French actors is headed by Lambert Wilson, who was recently seen in “The Princess of Montpensier” earlier this week. The first large portion of the film attempts to introduce the audience to the daily life in the monastery; thus, we see the monks eat; we see the monks pray; we see the monks farm; we see the monks help the villagers by treating them medically and clothing them; we see the monks sell honey at the local market; but most importantly, we see that the monks have a understanding of the Koran. Through these actions, which are heavily drawn out and captured in such an unentertaining way, the audience learns the way of the world in the monastery. First off, I feel that this may be the appropriate time to note that I am not a deeply religious person. That being said, when I view a film I want to be excited or at least interested in the community that it project on screen; however, there is nothing sexy about watching what I consider to be the AARP sect of the French Catholics in Algeria. They sing, chant, and pray far more than they actually articulate speech. Granted, I realize that monks lead relatively quiet lives, but couldn’t Beauvois have lied just a little and made them more interesting? Normally I loathe using this term, but its necessary to be applied to this film. “Of Gods and Men” needed the Hollywood treatment badly.

Being an American citizen, the events surrounding the disappearance of these monks is foreign to me; I needed further background into the historical significance of the event; what exactly was going on in Algeria? Any introductory level history class will teach you that French-Algerian relations have been strained (to say the least) since the Algerian fight for their independence in the 1950’s. Beauvois provides the spectator will little background information surrounding the conflict. First off, Beauvois never tells the audience where exactly we are; all we see is images of a remote African or Middle Eastern township. I am not asking that Beauvois hand us a syllabus, I would like, however, him to consider for the importance of the historical context. Time and time again, we are asked to feel threatened by these radical Muslim sects through the use of violence; yet, it seems highly unlikely that the men of God would be the targets of their terror. The threat of death is not accentuated enough; I don’t believe that nine grown men would actually fear these radicals; thus, abandoning their monastery becomes a matter of pride. If nine grown men desert a village that has become dependent to the extent that the lives of the villagers hinge on the presence of the monks, I find it exceedingly difficult to believe that they would leave. I mean, hello, the would look like such pansies if they aborted their mission, not to mention their flight would go against their vows.

As the film wore on, I kept being reminded of Michael Powell’s drama “Black Narcissus,” which follows the trials of a group British nuns, headed by Deborah Kerr, in imperial India. Underscored by the plight of British imperialism in the East, Powell’s film explores how these nuns cannot grapple the harsh elements and are tested by their feelings, especially Kerr, for the Henry Morton Stanley character down the mountain. Like Beauvois’ monks, Powell’s nuns cannot cohabitate with the wild, untamed environment that surrounds them, proving that the jungles of India are no place for God. What Powell’s film has that “Of Gods and Men” lacks is a sub-plot, which allows the spectator some glamour (perhaps the correct word is entertainment) during his story about nuns. I guess women religious figures are far more interesting to watch on screen than their male counterparts.

The most compelling moment of the film, the last supper that is shared by the monks, is completely overshadowed by Beauvois’ excessive uses of long shots. There were so many moments throughout the film during which Beauvois would allow the camera to sit on his subject for far to long. I kept hoping Samuel Goldwyn would rise from the orchestra and assert that his ass had started to hurt twenty minuets earlier and that Beauvois needed to cut at least forty-five minuets out of this dragging drama. Unfortunately, no Goldwyn appeared so I was left to try to keep my eyes open.

Also present in competition was Rachid Bouchareb’s “Outside of the Law,” which followed three Algerian brothers in Paris and their contribution to the fight for Algerian independence. During the screening an odd thing occurred. When the film illustrated the French gaining their independence from Germany, following the end of World War II, the audience lit up and cheered; however, when the film reached its end and captured Algeria’s independence from France, there was not the same bolster of applause. Algeria is still a sore subject apparently. While I am sure someone while lined pockets was the culprit for getting “Of Gods and Men” into the competition, I feel as though the film was used as a counter-argument for Bouchareb’s film. If this is the case, whatever France and Algeria have going on, I think its time they has a dialogue. I highly recommend making a more convincing argument that will keep even the laziest diplomats from falling asleep.