A tall, fine-boned woman with shining blond hair polishes a bowl made of gold. She stands relaxed, as servants bustle about the room--the golden woman calmly polishing the golden bowl. It is an arresting, precise image, the first we see of Emma Recchi, played by the ever more astonishing Tilda Swinton in the film "I Am Love," written and directed by Luca Guadagnino. Swinton and Guadagnino spent seven years developing the story and the characters, and the result is a film of subtle cues and implications, a family drama Shakespearean in complexity and firmly rooted in Greek tragedy. Although the Recchi family is Italian haute bourgeoisie, their attitudes and actions carry the weight of royalty. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that much is expected in this family and that there are consequences for those who disappoint or defy those expectations, that there are people who matter and those who do not, and, more than anything else, that freedom is both glorious and terrible, and always comes with a price.
After the opening collage of stern, stone facades of a Milan deep in the grey of winter, the interior of the Recchi villa is aglow with rich, warm color. As the servants and Emma work to prepare the table for dinner the family gathers, chatting about the unexpected loss of a race by the eldest son, Edo, to a man no one has heard of--the first disappointment of the evening (Recchis do not lose). Dinner is being prepared for the birthday celebration of the pater familias, Edoardo Recchi, Sr. Around the long table are his family: his wife, Allegra; eldest son, Tancredi, and his wife, Emma; Edo, the eldest son and prodigal, the hope of the family, and the child closest to his mother's heart; younger son, Gianluca; the youngest child, daughter Elisabetta, and a few others who seem to be both family and business connections. Edo has also brought home a new girlfriend, Eva. The calm of this perfect dinner, enjoyed by the perfect family, is unexpectedly ruffled when Edoardo, who has chosen this occasion to announce his successor in the family textile business, tells Tancredi he will share power with Edo as it "will take two men to replace him." This is a King passing on his crown, and he is insistent that the dynasty continue--the business must always be carried on by Recchis. It is all too obvious that he finds his own son not quite up to the mark, but trusts his grandson, Edo, who values the business for itself rather than merely for the fortune it has engendered.
Later, Elisabetta gives her grandfather his birthday gift and it emerges that, despite the appearance of family unity, there are other forces at work. Betta has been a painter but has made a gift of a photograph on this occasion; her grandfather is amused and tolerant, but claims that she still "owes" him a painting--she is a painter who should not waste her time on nonsense. Only Emma loves the photograph and reassures Betta of its value, but the feeling remains of a thread having been pulled loose from the family tapestry (later we will learn just how far from her narrow family she has gone). After dinner we meet Antonio, the chef who beat Edo earlier that day, when he arrives at the villa with a hand-made cake, a gift for Edo. He is received by him and his mother, who is struck by the gesture. Emma asks him in but he is aware that he is not of their class and retreats quickly, although later, Edo will pull that loosened thread further by going outside of his class to become Tonio's close friend and business partner.
This important dinner is just the first of the film's many meals; in this story, food is a force which binds people together and is rich with meaning, literal and symbolic. A lunch or dinner can change a person's life irrevocably; a bowl of soup can communicate love or signal a betrayal, and those who prepare food are different from those who merely eat it.
A few months later, at the height of summer, Emma meets her (now widowed) mother-in-law and new daughter-in-law (Edo has married his girlfriend) at Antonio's family's restaurant, where she experiences sensory overload as she tastes the shrimp Tonio has prepared for her. The sound fades and lights dim around her and she is spotlighted as she eats slowly, savoring every subtle flavor. It is a breathtaking moment, the center of the film; somehow, these mouthfuls of food have woken her up--her senses come alive for the first time, perhaps, in years. She tastes ecstasy. This moment will lead Emma on a new path; the next time she sees Tonio she will follow him (in what may be the year's best chase scene) until they collide and he takes her to his home high above San Remo, where he lives in natural splendor on a verdant hillside, a far cry from the studied, artificial perfection of the Recchi villa in Milan. They become lovers, and the rest of the film's action derives from that one decision; through it, Emma will shake the Recchi family to its core.
Up to this point, Guadagnino has kept strict control of time--we know where and when we are as we follow Betta's unfolding story in London and Edo's journey through the business world as he opposes his father and brother when they want to sell the company--but while Emma is with Tonio, time is fluid, elongated. She seems to spend days, even weeks with him (Edo will come looking for his friend and find no sign of him). They make love in a meadow, cut her perfectly coiffed hair short, curl up inside a cave high up in the hills. She teaches him to make ukha, the traditional Russian soup she learnt to make as a young girl in her native country, and tells Tonio about herself: with irony, she tells how Tancredi found her while he was treasure-hunting in Russia. She tells Tonio of how Edo loves her Russian-ness (they speak Russian together, while no one else in the family has bothered to learn it), and loves her ukha. It is a special treat she prepares for him (it was served at his grandfather's birthday dinner). We learn that her name isn't Emma at all--Tancredi decided to call her that--and she claims not to remember her real name, only a childhood nickname. She has made herself over entirely to become Emma Recchi, a fictitious person living a life that takes no account of who she really is. Through her relationship with Tonio her true self begins to emerge. Emma, who before shone with the buffed polish of that bowl she held earlier, now glows with sunshine and joy. This entire sequence is a foray into D.H. Lawrence territory, not just in its sensuality, but in making the argument that Tonio, the natural man, is a deeper, realer, and in every sense better man than the mechanical Tancredi. It is a dangerous edge for the director to walk, but Swinton's earthy performance grounds the sequence concretely--we never, for a moment, disbelieve Emma's reawakening to life; she seems to be breathing the air for the very first time. It is when she tries to bring this newly alive self home to the Recchi villa that she finds herself out of joint, unable to control the ways in which this new-found relationship rebounds on her family. Tragedy is inevitable, and so thoroughly has the film embraced food as the means of meaningful communication that we are not surprised when the fatal blow is delivered via a bowl of ukha. That blow is swift and dreadful; the thread that Betta first tweaked has been pulled too loose; the once flawless tapestry unravels completely. But in the end it is that selfsame thread which becomes Emma's lifeline, delivering her intact.
Tilda Swinton's performance is simply extraordinary; she has become a force of nature. Her iconic appearances in Derek Jarman's "Edward II" and Sally Potter's sumptuous "Orlando" were early training for the regal cool required for this role. More recently we've seen her as the lonely wife hungry for sexual intensity in "Young Adam," the passionately protective mother in "The Deep End," and, in "Michael Clayton," the brittle, ferocious attorney who can contract out a couple of murders and still get on with her day. In this film, speaking both Italian and Russian, she moves effortlessly from the immaculate businessman's wife to the abandoned sensualist who gives in to love completely, without ever sounding a false note. She shows not a trace of discomfort or self-consciousness as, at nearly fifty years old, she lies naked in the Italian sun, and, when grief overwhelms Emma, she makes herself even more naked, stripped bare by bewildered shock. The film is unimaginable without her.
Lushly photographed by Yorick Le Saux, with an energetic and unusual score by John Adams, with excellent performances by all, especially Maria Paiato as Emma's faithful maid, Gabriele Ferzetti as Edoardo, Sr., Marisa Berenson as Allegra, Flavio Parenti as Edo, and Edoardo Gaberiellini as Tonio, "I Am Love" is, in every sense of the word, a feast.
I AM LOVE (Io sono l'amore) is one of the powerfully moving, visually intoxicating, philosophically profound movies to come out in many years. The only other film that has moved this viewer so deeply is LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD - both are complete poetically successful cinematic achievements. Unfortunately few people may understand the title of the film (quoted in the heading of this review: in critical scene in the film the husband and wife are viewing a movie on television, and that movie is PHILADELPHIA, the scene where Tom Hanks is translating the Maddalena's aria from 'Andrea Chenier' and while the voice of Maria Callas is heard singing, the voice-over by Hanks expressing 'I am love' is strangely absent, as though that would be too obvious. But then there are many strange and beautiful moments throughout this quiet film that aim directly for the soul - and hit the target for those who will participate in the story and the vision.
The Recchi family in Milan, Italy is a powerful, long successful and wealthy group of 'machine made, sterile people' - for the most part. About twenty years ago Tancredi Recchi (Pippo Delbono), on an art buying trip, met a Russian girl and 'added' her to his collection, changing her name and position in life to Emma (Tilda Swinton). Emma became the genteel and sterile hostess of the Villa, producing two children - Elisabetta (Alba Rohrwacher), an artist, and Edoardo, Jr (Flavio Parenti), a practical lad ready to enter the plastic life of this father. The paterfamilias, Edoardo Sr. (Gabriele Ferzetti) has a birthday party and announces his retirement, leaving the company business in the joint hands of Tancredi and Edorado, Jr. Edoardo Sr. soon dies and the company is a focus for outsiders to purchase. Meanwhile, Edoardo, Jr has lost a sports event with a young common lad, the simple chef Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini) and Antonio visits the Villa with a cake for Edoardo, jr - a gesture from his hands of simple kindness. Emma meets Antonio and buried emotions of passion begin to emerge, controlled of course. Time passes and Elisabetta (now Betta) meets a woman, falls in love, and thus rejects the advances of the 'proper, designated' boyfriend, confessing to her very understanding mother that she is lesbian and wants to pursue her own goals outside the family. Emma, always supported by her devoted maid Ida (Maria Paiato), begins to respond to the raw but deeply suppressed emotions she so desires. She begins an affair with Antonio (now Edoardo's best friend and one with whom he wants to open a restaurant outside of Milan) and when Eduardo discovers the affair he feels betrayed by the mother he so deeply loves and during a confrontation with Emma he accidently falls and dies. The Recchi family's manufactured Milanese cocoon is broken and Emma, though devastated by the loss of her beloved son, departs the family for Antonio's grotto.
The film was planned for almost eleven years as a project by Tilda Swinton and writer/director Luca Guadagino (we learn from the DVD featurettes). Not only was the story of the disease of capitalism and the disregard for the people who live by the work of their hands an important aspect of the film, but also such aspects as the musical score for this dream project was a joint dream: both love the music of John Adams and when they shared their vision with Adams, he immediately jumped in and wrote both original music for the opening but also excerpted moments from his 'Piano Rolls', dances from 'Nixon in China', 'Harmonielehre' and the breathtaking 'Harmonium' whose choral parts provide a stunning ending. He also elected to have the last movement, 'Das himmlische Leben', from Mahler's 4th Symphony serve as the background music for the large party sequence - subtle additions. The camera is used in extraordinary ways, allowing some of the action to be intentionally out of focus, bathing the sexual encounter between Emma and Antonio in voluptuous and sensitively private lighting. While there is not a weak actor in the cast, the role of the Russian émigré Emma (spoken completely in Italian) who manages to break out of the manufactured confines of the wealthy family she married into to become a women capable of returning to the reality of her roots - as portrayed by Tilda Swinton - will assuredly go down in cinematic history as one of the most impressive performances ever.
The film is long, does not follow a rigid sequential line, begs for our participation in the awakening of senses, is in Italian with English subtitles, and is very subtle. It will not appeal to everyone. But to those who respect the brilliance of the creators this will be a film that will remain in the mind forever. Grady Harp, October 10