I Am Love Review
There’s always the danger of being seduced by empty stylisations in modern Italian cinema – the films of Paolo Sorrentino come to mind – but sometimes it is indeed necessary to just submit to the power of the imagery put in front of you and not think too much about it. You aren’t really given the choice with Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love (Io sono l’amore), a family melodrama in the best tradition not only of classic Italian cinema, but also with resonances to Italian grand opera, where the imagery is every bit as overwhelming as the passions that are unleashed.
The family in question are the Recchis, one of the most eminent families of the Milanese aristocracy, and the forces that are to undermine the serene perfection of their position and self-assurance come from both within and without, but are inadvertently unleashed on the occasion of an extravagant birthday celebration at the opulent Recchi family mansion to celebrate the birthday of the family’s patriarch Edoardo Sr (Gabriele Ferzetti). The founder of the business that has made the family’s millions, Edoardo announces his decision to stand down in favour of handing control of operations over not only to his son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), but to ensure that the business remains a family concern and has the crucial involvement of the younger generation, he makes his grandson Edoardo Jr. (Flavio Parenti) also a partner in its ownership and everyday running.
There is an excessive amount of detail given over to this occasion, from the beautifully prepared food to the dress and manners of those present, and indeed the word excess could be applied to almost every aspect of this film. It is however appropriate within the context of the subject, the events that occur on this evening proving to be of great importance to what follows, not so much in establishing personalities and characters as much as the milieu they operate in. The impressions are enforced upon the viewer from the very first images on the screen (even down to the classical font of the titles) showing the imposing Fascist construction of the façade of the Milan Stazione Centrale, which seems to exert its influence across the business district. The Recchi family is a family with a tradition of fairness and equality towards its workers, but the practicalities of working within a corrupt system and government mean that it also has its roots in less noble dealings, and the suggestion is that it is almost impossible for any successful established business not to have shameful connections to the past. The place of the Recchi family within the modern world however is about to change – both in business and in personal terms.
As dramatically as this is filmed and as devastating as the cumulative impact of the film ultimately proves to be, what is remarkable is the subtle and at the same time the powerful manner in which I Am Love sows the seeds of destruction. There is scarcely a voice raised in dispute or anger throughout the whole film, and little indication that there are any serious cracks in family unit. The younger daughter Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher) wants to pursue her own way in terms of studies, career and love life, and Edoardo has a few personal business ventures he wants to pursue with his young, talented restaurateur friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), but these are no more than minor upsets that cause only mild misgivings you would expect from a family built on tradition and careful management of alliances. Throughout the film everyone is supportive in all the relationships and friendships and, up until the moment that a single statement of “You no longer exist” is made, there is nothing expressed except love. But it is indeed love that tears them apart.
If it can be put down to a single incident that changes everything, it’s the simple discovery by mother Emma (Tilda Swinton) of a CD left by her daughter in an item of clothing at a dry-cleaners that sets off the unforseen chain of events. It’s not so much the revelation this makes about Elisabetta, although this is certainly significant in breaking away from the tradition and the place that the family have in mind for the young girl (one hinted at during the dinner party by Elisabetta going against tradition and presenting the grandfather with a framed photograph rather than a traditional drawing), it’s more significant for the impact this has on Emma’s view of the world and her place, as a Russian immigrant, within it. The turning point is similarly impressionistic, a remarkably photographed scene at a restaurant when the simple eating of an exquisitely prepared dish of prawns sparks off an indefinable sequence of emotions and sensations within Emma.
Beautifully filmed, I Am Love has an almost classical feel that is in the tradition of Visconti, closely aligned as it is in subject matter and in an approach that adopts the grandness and tragedy of Italian opera. Without being too slavish towards tradition, Luca Guadagnino draws however from other Italian sources – there’s a touch of Antonioni in how he draws Emma and Antonio together in another extraordinary sequence in Sanremo through a combination of a sighting of the town’s Russian Orthodox church, the lifting of an art book from a shop and blurring fusions of light – but the director also has a distinct touch of his own, making powerful use of a John Adams soundtrack and bringing all these qualities together in a unique way.
Some of them work, others feel a little-heavy handed, others would appear to simply defy any attempt at justification – the incredible al fresco extreme-close-up love scene between Emma and Antonio communing with nature in the countryside outside San Remo would make D.H. Lawrence blush – but in themselves, in the context of the film, and in the context of the subject, they are powerfully compelling and exert an extraordinary impression upon the viewer that defies rational analysis and perhaps even considerations of what is accepted as good taste according to conventional moviemaking standards. There is no need however to think to hard about all this, but simply submit to the power of the director and his use of imagery to suggest and make connections. Whether the melodramatic nature of the story of an aristocratic Milanese family merits such attention is debatable, as is whether there is any real substance behind the stylisations, but such is the power of I Am Love to hold sway over the emotions and sensations, particularly when it is confronted on a big screen, that justifications or rationalisations can only safely be made after the fact.