Auteur Anurag Kashyap's "Mukkabaaz" could well have been titled "Multi-Tasker". Somewhat like but with far bigger challenges than the great Indian film heroes who have to not just act but also dance, sing and fight unlike their luckier Hollywood brethren who only have to do the first thing, The Boxer we see here doesn't just have to box at the top level but also accomplish the Herculean task of overcoming caste politics and wholesale skulduggery, do a day-time Railways job under the mercy of corrupt bosses who barely allow him to escape in the evenings for his boxing training, which again he has to curtail because home beckons but he is too tired to cuddle up to his wife whose hand he had to fight like a fiend to win. Forget a district-level medal, if any man or woman can wake up the next day to again go through the cycle of this insane circus, he or she deserves a million dollars in cash and a Lifetime Achievement Award. More @ Upnworld
Pic's initial set-up discloses mediocre treatment given to a unique premise - a regulation-issue U.S military lab receives a unique wild creature captured from the depths of South America's jungles. Unlike many amphibians, it is humanoid, with a bipedal upright posture and a face with eyes and lips, with the crucial factor being its breathing organs that respire both in air and water. With the scientists unable to fully analyze its unique physiology, the military hits upon the brilliant idea of killing the creature by vivisection so that its secrets will be finally laid bare.
In this barbaric equation, where's the relief ? It comes in the form of Elisa Esposito - the facility's petite cleaning woman, who is mute. She is not a physical beauty but there is a gentleness in her demeanour that is like a calming surf. This quietly angelic and elegant essence is exquisitely conveyed by Sally Hawkins. Early on, we see her naked body descending into the bath-tub and I later wondered what was the purpose of this element of nudity apart from its elemental appeal. Presumably, Del Toro's idea is to show her as she is, with no secrets at all , an uncorrupted transparent presence.
She takes a liking to the aquatic humanoid and the feeling turns reciprocal. They are both outsiders , and yes this is a movie that also bows its gills to the plight of the gay, and the African-American. That admirable sentiment should be handled delicately of course, with artful amplification without shouting it from the rooftops, but Del Toro is unable to develop that poignant dynamic to its acme. There are some exquiste whispers to this effect though, as the aged Giles (an excellent Richard Jenkins looking, sounding and emoting very much like an aged Walter White) sits beside a bath-tub and spills his heart out to his partially comprehending one-off counterpart.
The picture is a success on many fronts till the half-way point, and after that while its retains its narrative sensibility, the imagination mucks around on the ocean bed, not finding much to vary the palette. Elisa takes a very bold decision ( cf. the govt.-alleged activity of Wikus van de Merwe of 'District 9' ) and her decision one fine evening to 'run the tap' flows into a gloriously wreckless beauty of a scene. The movie is not coy about what our unshackled Amphibian Man can be, and his encounter with a cat fully justifies a scream. Yes, there are some fantasy touches of what he can do , but it pales in comparison to what Spielberg achieved when he sets Agatha and John loose in a mall in "Minority Report".
The biggest weak link is the villain - Colonel Strickland competently enacted by William Shannon. For me it is impossible to see him without remembering "Jaws" - the giant-like man of craggy-boulder, scary face played by Richard Kiel as the ultimate villain in some Bond movies. Del Toro might very well have been looking to channel this scary-giant effect when he used Shannon for the role. It is worth noting how both the monsters, the one inside the water and the one outside, take a liking toward the simple and docile lady in their perimeter. Shannon though has a very limited brief - to act like an alpha prick with everyone, to bloodily beat up the Ambhibian Man, and to have brutally mechanistic sex with this wife. The role becomes straight-jacketingly two-dimensional and if Shannon tried to improvise some much needed dual shades, it either doesn't come through at all or Del Toro quashes it. More @ Upnworld
The life of Srinivas Ramanujan is a famous matter of public record, so it should not come across as a spoiler when declared that the fate which eventually befell Ramanujan's physical life, is amongst the great losses in the history of modern knowledge. He passed away in 1920 at age of thirty-two, leaving in his wake a mountain of pioneering mathematics that continues to draw the awe of the best minds in the field. People of various nationalities have admirably kept his story alive, and writer-director Matthew Brown makes a vital contribution to that legacy by a beautifully narrated rendition of this genius's poignant life.
Drawing on Thomas Kanigel's book, Brown marries fact and cinema with exemplary finesse, while never forgetting to inject dramatic energy that such films need. Lesser known facts and despicable incidents of racial bias, commingle with the more familiar outlay and wonderful dialogues known to those conversant with Ramanujan's legend.
Born in Kumbakonam, a humble town in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Ramanujan grappled with penury and the lack of an academic degree even as his staggering mathematical intuition made him conjure up complex unheard-of formulas out of nowhere. His pleas for guidance finally caught the attention of G.H Hardy - a leading Cambridge mathematician who brought Ramanujan over to the prestigious university. Clash of methodology, culture and religious beliefs aside, Hardy held Ramanujan's talent in the highest esteem and they eventually collaborated on acclaimed papers that finally merited the latter the fellowship of the Royal Society.
That happy progression however, was getting increasingly getting threatened by the ravages of a physical disease that Ramanujan could never recover from, despite the services of multiple British and Indian doctors. A strict Brahmin transplanted to a land where vegetarianism was only a little less rare than were mango trees, he felt obliged to cook his own food, and half-starved with irregular meal-times and demanding work. World War I thundered in with its own set of horrors and shortages.The screenplay pulls no punches in revealing how doomed the young man felt.
While adroitly depicting all this, the movie shows its knack for reprising memorable dialogue from real-life. We are reminded of eminent mathematician John Littlewood's 's words "Every positive integer is a personal friend of Ramanujan". Alas, the integers of human age proved unfriendly to him.
The opening sequences in Kumbakonam sport a carefully composed mise en scene that misses the redolence of the real India. Even later when the film switches track to look at the strained dynamic between Ramanujan's mother and wife, it loses its strength. Done-to-death flute music, with little tune variations, permeates the film with its melodramatic cloy.
But the pictures admirably allocates enough space and sensitivity to show Ramanujan's disrupted marital life (real-life was more awkward - Ramanujan at twenty-one was cast into arranged marriage with a bride only ten years old, in keeping with the practice at that time). The film settles into its true element only when proceedings shift to the Cambridge campus.
That owes itself in large measure to Jeremy Irons' pitch-perfect performace as J H Hardy. With a consistently droll sense of humour, he comes across as a tough world-weary Cambridge don who reserves a very honest and good heart (true to real-life accounts). The film is terrific in showing how he calmly and relentlessly instructs the increasingly frustrated Ramanujan that showing methodic proofs is more important than miraculously birthing incredible formulae. The contrast between his atheism and Ramaujan's unshakeable belief, is shown with wise economy. Not once do we see Hardy regarding Ramanujan in a demeaning way, because he knows in his bones that he is in the presence of a very rare genius whom he puts in the rarefied level of " Euler and Jacobi".
Such perfection in casting however failed the film-makers when they elected to make the commercially safe choice of Dev Patel in essaying Ramanujan - as if wanting Patel to pull off a different kind of 'Slumdog Millionaire'. Patel is a British-bred actor of Gujarati ancestry and though he is intense and reasonably convincing in the film, I did not find the expected Tamilian either in his speech or physicality. Accents aside, unlike the lean Patel, the real-life Ramanjuan had a fullness of face and body not dissimilar to another genius from Tamil Nadu - A R Rahman. The movie further disadvantages Patel as we never witness him being given his personal space for reflection, so that we could see more of the man behind that vaulting genius.
However the film redeems its honest core by unflinching depiction of the violent jealousy of some professors, and racist assaults by others on this Indian contender. Hearteningly, certain other Cambridge seniors support Ramanjunan for his ability. One of Brown's best triumphs is evidenced in his indirect way of showing the film's terminal event , and the hidden reason behind this choice. We see exquisite emotion in a person in whom we never saw that depth of feeling before.
We may never know the actual pathology - whether it was tuberculosis, hepatic amoebiasis or some other agent of doom - that brought on the fevers, deliriums , aches and coughs that ended Ramanujan's life. Antibiotics were yet to be invented, but the irony is that while proofs for his dazzling formulae were continually asked of Ramanujan, there was no laboratory proof of tuberculosis for which he was continually treated to no avail. Doctors failed this great mathematician, otherwise he would have lived longer but the movie is not interested in further investigating this key issue.
That should not detract from Brown's overall achievement. He marshalls his actors' abilities, recreates a yesteryear Cambridge and builds emotion, all so effectively that, though I had keenly sifted through Ramanujan's life several times in the past, I felt all the more deeply for this great man at the movie's end.
You may very well picturize how a typical Bombay producer would have hacked to pieces the wonderful soul and structure of 'Mammo'. You may see and hear him having an attack of apoplexy whilst crying " Kyaa ?! The main characters are two old ladies and a little boy ?! You took the hero and heroine's mothers and cast them in entire lead roles ?! Pikchar ke release ke baad hum sab bhooke mar jaayenge ! And what on earth is a little boy doing in this frontline role ? Little boys do not exist so conspicuously in mainstream Hindi cinema - they usually live in parallel universes which start existing when the picture has ended and the hero and heroine are living happily ever after. And what's this #%^&#@!?! you have some moth-eaten ghazal in place of an item song ? Uff-oh!,Whatever did you to distance Sunny Leone so far from us? And there's a bilkul thanda completely harmless porno magazine scene in place of the seethi-thaaliya montage where the kanyaa is about to be raped by the villain but the hero jumps in to bravely resuscitate her outraged modesty, while female audience members weep cathartic tears in the aisles about feminism being heroically salvaged".
Dear Reader, if you are tired of masterpieces like 'Rowdy Rathore' but you still crave paisa vasool pictures which entertain you every minute while leaving out sex, violence , romance , political skulduggery and florid melodrama, then for that pure delicious slice of life , come home to 'Mammo'. It is a breath of fresh air, with a naturality and intimacy that feels very much like the life you lived yourself, in the world around us, and in the familiar confines of your home. India is such a rich country, with a limitless cast of real-life characters and situations but you see it onscreen so rarely because of the pundits in paragraph one. But every so often a film like 'Mammo' emerges , reminding us why something so simple is actually so rare.
The script-writer is Khalid Mohamed and the director is Shyam Benegal : two gentlemen who have relentlessly swum against the noxious tides that lap Mumbai's filmic shores. For the former, it has autobiographical shades but the film elides self-indulgence and maintains an impartial gaze. In the world of chefs you sometimes hear the refrain, " We let the ingredients speak for themselves". That's precisely what Mr.Benegal does, expertly helming the narrative vehicle to let the exquiste engine of Mr.Mohamed's script steer the way.
Amit Phalke's brilliant, pitch-perfect turn as the fourteen year old Riyaaz , is a reason by itself, among other strong persuasions, to watch the movie. Extracting compelling acts from child artistes remains so tricky, with so many efforts being either flat cardboard cut-outs, or goody-two-shoes Harry Puttar or the extreme Draco Malfoy. But young Phalke nails it right from scene one.
Watch his annoyed face from the second he opens the door to a visitor. His expression instantly , wordlessly says ' Who the heck are you and what are you doing in my home?!' Riyaaz then lugs heavy luggage inside as his Mammo naani (his grandmother's sister) arrives in his Bombay flat. Mehmuda Begum's (affectionately called Mammo) husband has passed away, and his relatives have been wreaking hell on Mammo, for which reason she has left Pakistan where her husband had brought her to, during the partition of India. She has now come unannounced to the house of her sister Fayyazi and Riyaaz, seeking refuge, while smartly leaving the duration of stay an open question.
Riyaaz is a little firecracker ; peaceable, thoughtful and keenly intelligent when the going is good, and exploding when provoked. He lives in a compact Bombay apartment with his maternal grandmother and no one else, in a time period which is either the late nineteen-sixties or the early seventies. Sensing that the new arrival Mammo naani might stay on with them for longer than expected, he stomps up to his grandmother, keenly aware of the strong rapport he has with her while also being cognizant that she might not be entirely jubilant with accomodating Mammo. "Do you want me to become a duffer ?! Don't you want me to get first rank again ?! How long is she going to stay here ?! " he angrily demands. When his grandma (Fayyazi naani) attempts to hush up his histrionics, he swiftly retaliates with verbals dismissals and a hiss-'n'- toss of his head . The next scene shows him tooth-brushing so furiously that we fear he's going to lacerate his gums.
Academically excelling, we see him often opening his study-books at home and even in the police station while awaiting Mammo's visa stamp, and we also see him 'bunking' school on multiple occasions (he's the type of unusual scholar who seems to do most of his studies outside the classroom). The short Riyaaz has a close friend in the form of tall lanky Rohan whose soft-mannered disposition is a welcome foil to Riyaaz's strong-headedness. With Rohan, Riyaaz is able to relax and chat about myriad things including Alfred Hitchcock (they sneak off hidden in burqas to watch the "adult picture" Psycho in theater!) and Riyaaz's wish to be a writer. It's just as well that he is able to blow off his steam with good listeners because as we as we progressively see, a sense of deep hurt and betrayal constantly roils beneath his surface. He has been brought up from early childhood without mother and father, with a sudden shock discovery of a promised past throwing up even more trauma, while his Fayyazi naani who has painstakingly brought him up spares him the ugly details of the past, much to his resentment.
What stands Mammo both in good stead and in hot water often, is that she is a highly convivial lady, able to strike up a familiar busy conversation with whoever she meets. Farida Jalal is terrific as the vivacious title character Mammo , bringing to life a many-splendored persona that the better-known superstar actresses of her generation would have found tough to essay. Her ample frame and kind, warm face superbly channel a large-hearted physiognomy and shoulders worthy enough to carry an entire wonderful film. Yes she's a busybody, from asking the taxi-driver his income to asking the police inspector about his family to swiftly gathering a whole little classroom of girls to whom she teaches the Quran, so much that she does not realize how much she's dominating the lives of Fayyazi and Riyaaz. But that's also backed up by true gumption and humane concern for others, as when she takes Riyaaz and wades into the slums to set right the alcoholic abusive husband of the maid (who else do you know who's gone to that extent?)
There's a remarkable scene in those shabby bylanes where Riyaaz , while discussing his writerly ambition, asks her whether she's really seen 'Hell' and she replies in the affirmative, while calmly narrating what she experienced during the Partition. For the uninitiated , we refer here to the partition of India to create the separate country of Pakistan in 1947, an act fostered by the evil British empire, and powered by the mistrust, hatred and irresponsibility of both Hindus and Muslims. Fourteen million people's lives were displaced - the largest mass migration, forced or otherwise, in human history and two million killed. Mammo in her brief telling of what she saw and felt, avoids any graphic depiction of barbarism, rather she simply narrates how people act when they are in extreme stress and grief. That expertly directed and exquisitely acted sequence, becomes with economy and aching sensitivity, an effective synecdoche of the Partition's horrors.
Completing the trio of fabulous performances is the thespian perfection of Surekha Sikhri in embodying Fayyazi. Calm curmudgeonly kind and assiduous, with an iron-clad sense of pragmatism, the slim matronly Fayaazi will strike so many viewers as the kind of no-nonsense senior lady they may have been acquainted with. Fayyazi captains her little domestic ship with an eminently sensible and cautious attitude, carefully looking after her grandson, fussing over the daily maid who hasn't yet turned up, deeply empathizing with a sentimental Hindi film, while falling asleep at a English pikchar. She shows a deep fondness towards both Riyaaz and Mammo, but when provoked , she will rain the most sizzling shards of punitive hell on both of them. There is a masterpiece of a "domestic violence" scene (which admittedly very few social workers will be compelled to take action over) where an enraged Fayyazi punishes Riyaaz in a sustained bout of hysteria while administering a colourful verbal thrashing to the intervening Mammo.
With its intimate detailing of the lives of characters with Islamic backgrounds, and comfortable coverage of everyday middle-class milieus, "Mammo" somehow brings to my mind the best of Iranian cinema by Panahi, Kiarostami and Majidi - but 'Mammo' is able to directly state matters with more blunt honesty, coming from a nation that is a little more tolerant than Iran. Truffaut's '400 blows', with its unadorned depiction of a troubled boy, can well be considered a cousin of this film, but 'Mammo' is able to include a fuller fabric of more than one protagonist.
Some aspects of this film's yesteryear milieu (which admittedly is not that far back from the present) seem so innocent and special, ensconced in an era when the world was a little more forgiving . On Riyaaz's birthday , when walking into school, he holds hands briefly with Rohan. It is a tender reflection of close friendship, yet in this day and age of over-smart over-knowledgeable kids, in a world where both kids and adults are constantly terrified of buggery and the fear of gays taking over the universe, such a simple warm gesture might not be allowed to take place. Afte college, when I visited a dear friend in Boston, we were walking along the city streets and I put a hand over his shoulder, imagine my surprise when he shrugged it off saying that we might be mistaken for gays.
Music in films is not Shyam Benegal's forte. He lucked out greatly with Rahman in 'Zubeida' but the nightmarish "song" he inserted in 'Kalyug' disturbs to this day. For 'Mammo' , Vanraj Bhatia is appointed. The background score, judiciously deployed to be fair, barely passes muster but the one and only song in 'Mammo' is one for the ages. Benegal, realizing the value of this, places it at a juncture that is like the exactly orchestrated move of a chess champion. "Yeh Faasle", sung with deep sepia emotion by Jagjeet Singh , ranks one of the finest ghazals I've had the privilege of hearing, especially when seen with the video proceedings. It has the 'recorded' sonic quality of a prayer call from a mosque's minaret, but 'tis more sonorous, nostalgic and instantly melodic that any muezzin's call could ever be.
Dialogues by Javed Siddiqui are a study in Urdu of simple elegance, and reach their colourful acme when the ladies become beside themselves [he takes this excellence a step higher in the prequel film 'Zubeida' (2001)] This is not a lavishly budgeted movie but the cinematography by Prasanna Jain's cinematograohy maintains a tidy aesthetic, complemented by Aseem Sinha's smooth editing.
SPOILER ALERT : The next two paragraphs are marked separate by asterixes :
Though it will give away a sudden turn of events in the finale as alerted above (the actual denouement which comes later is a different scene - whether the denouement/epilogue is real or a fantasy , who knows ?), it is important to discuss the psychodynamics of a forceful event and one line uttered towards the film's last stretch. The authorities get wind of Mammo's overstaying in India and then suddenly swoop in to manually remove her and bundle her off in a train.
A man, who is part of that enforcing entourage, says "Why do these Pakistanis want to stay in India?" That remark betrays how little thought the man has really given to the question, and it engenders a whole essay, an encyclopedia, a library, nay whole millennia of reflection on why we are obssessed with religion and revenge rather than with humanity. Mammo mentions that her father's ancient mansion stood in Panipat - if asked to, she could easily arrange the official trail of paperwork proving this. Her childhood is thus rooted in a region that has been an important part of India both before and after the Partition. More importantly, she identifies India as her true home now and even the practicalities attest to the fact that relatives sympathetic to her live in India, not in Pakistan. But the policemen and women, and immigration authorities who pack her off to Pakistan the same day on a train, are not interested in knowing WHY she acts the way she does.
For them it is more important to make default assumptions that people remain where their religion fits in neatly. The 1947 Partition of India as discussed above, and centuries of Mughal rule in the same country where Muslim rulers presided over a majority of Hindus, has created deep rifts and festering hostility betwen Hindus and Muslims in the subcontinent. Very few attempt to humanely address these complex wounds , and the majority are interested in easy "fixes" which don't really fix anything. It is by this way that the policeman's one-line remark resurrects an entire epic of massacred understanding, a Partition again for Mehmuda Begum.
Mr.Mohamed and Mr.Benegal thus accomplish a seamless blend of individual, familial, societal, and even national threads, woven into an intimate skein. The characters here are all innately strong, but their lives have also been re-shaped irrevocably by past baggage which keeps exerting its weight on their present and future. Mammo wants to return to live in India but a strongly family-oriented lady like her much prefers to live with her sister and grand-nephew even if it means inconveniencing them in their hitherto undisturbed existence. Fayyazi and Riyaaz both like Mammo, as she does them, but the hassle of continually accommodating another person in their compact apartment, aside from of course putting up with another person in their lives even if that person is family, is too much for them.
Practicalities thus elbow out roseate familial togetherness.The film does not gloss over this thorny reality, and depicts so many other day to day events in their lives with a ceaseless knack shorn of tedium or artifice.
It is a mistake to call this film a "little gem". It is big in its own way, a charmed world between cinema verite and nostalgia.
WARNING : It is not possible to elucidate the finer points of this special picture without elaborating on some specific plot points. I have left out some other spoilers which did not necessitate mention, but if you'd rather see the movie with no knowledge whatsoever of its turns, please skip the review for now while coming into receipt of the tip-off that this is that rare feature film that blends the operatic with the everyday in a deeply stylish, viscerally emotional way.
Review Begins :
Few countries make, nay, have the style statement that Italy embodies. A tourism paradise with scores of stunning locales inland and by the sea, magnificent old-world architecture, haute couture, luscious cuisine, luxury furniture and more... In cinema, more than the better-known Italian cine-landmarks , I remember 'Il Conformista', not so much for the emotion as for the gorgeous soft-palette colours and graceful camera flow that gently suffuses the entire picture. In the twenty-first century I remain very glad to have been introduced to, and covet as a treasure, my copy of 'lo Sono L'amore' (I Am Love) - a film by Luca Guadagnino that unites almost all the afore-mentioned elite elements into an impossibly beautiful masterpiece.
It focuses on a very wealthy family in Milan that has woven its riches from the textile industry. There is emotional turbulence in the very first sequence - a lost horse race which the family always previously won, and a surprise decision in a declaration of power transfer from one generation to another. The subversive influences, in an impressive array of forms, never stop from there onwards, taking apart the family in multiple ways.
This exact same story could have been told by a lesser director in a fairly pedestrian way, but the helmer here uses the high-end setting as a launching board, to wed everyday behaviour and feeling with an agile tendency to naturally sculpt and let soar scenes of hypnotic intensity and operatic grandeur. Guadagnino directs with such beauty and controlled flamboyance that even if I were charged not the usual $20 that is the price of a movie ticket but $400 that is the tariff for a high-profile opera (that 'I Am Love' effortlessly often simulates) I'd have left satiated at the end of the performance.
The imaginative and grandly conceived opening, gazes at snow-swathed Milan which then flows into a memorable mansion of modern-meets-classic design.
Emma (Tilda Swinton) is the mistress of the house and we are introduced to her as she busily attends to the details of a large family dinner planned for later that day. Set to be held in a stately, beautiful high-ceilinged dining room, it will herald an important announcement by the patriarch who lives in a different house. Her youth was spent in a modest household in Russia from where she was whisked away by wealthy heir Tancredi (Pippo Delbono - subtly effective as a stuffy middle-aged man of privilege).
This couple, we sense in glimpses, now live a life shorn of the kind of sentiment that somehow makes heaven-selected pairs lead their entire mutual lives in passable commitment. They don't fight , but nor do we sense a bright flame still burning.
They have three children; the eldest appears to be in his mid to late twenties - a slender, handsome blue-eyed young man named Edoardo. With a heart that is good and large, he cares for his friends, willing to go the extra mile for them while planning keenly to ensure that his factory staff have secure long-term employment. No wonder his grandfather, who made their estate what it is , likes him more than he does Tancredi.
The churn occurs when Edoardo befriends Antonio (Edoardo Gabriellini) - another young colt who had defeated him in the horse race. Antonio appears to have elements of North African or Middle Eastern extraction; he's an up-'n'-coming nouvelle cuisine chef whose creations wow everyone who tastes them. There's the saying - 'When your friend goes the extra mile for you and arranges the finances and logistics to inaugurate your professional dream, please do not court his mother'. Antonio evidently has not heard, neither does his care, for this counsel.
When deciding to make a film, the first choices I would make is to appoint a high-quality cinematographer and music composer - in particular, men or women who understand aesthetics and restraint, and when to cut loose. Luca Guadagnino aces the score on these two invaluable fronts. He selects and inserts John Adams' orchestral compositions which were already cemented much before the film's idea was conceived, and five-star lensmanship by Yorick Le Saux.
Their dual magic, further elevated by the director's visionary wand, manifests in various showpiece sequences.
When Emma, her glamorous, augustly catty mother-in-law Allegra and Edoardo's fiancee lunch in Antonio's restaurant, he sends out the best of his modernist cuisine flourishes for them. The way he synthesizes a gorgeous deconstructionist version of the 'Leghorn-stye Cod' is a joy to watch in itself. On tasting it, Emma gets the first frisson on what's to come. There's even a sneaky meaning in the main course for the senior lady (an egg yolk and pea cream dish that a man would probably scoff in one bite), a relatively mainstream "mixed fish and crunchy vegetable" for the fleshily smooth fiancee.
To Emma however, his presentation elides quantity (of which Emma has had no dearth of in her millionaire household) and focuses on profound pleasurable quality (which she may not have had enough of). Shrimp, of those intensely hued small Mediterranean ilk, and ratatouille (stewed vegetables) are placed in front of Emma. Her fingers holding the fork and knife attend to the task with gentle incredulous pleasure and on tasting the shrimp, her eyes close and her face and eyes slowly writhe... as though she's being caressed both inside and outside. The scene's natural pace slows down to join her in languorous ecstasy. Lights dim off elsewhere and create a soft spotlight around her whilst music carefully enhances intimacy and expansiveness in the background. Brad Bird would have approved. The scene is a key example of how cuisine (with a subtle consistent focus on seafood) is used throughout the movie as a device of subversion. After such a seduction, one wonders what the impossibly sated Emma can possibly do to fend off the flirtation...
Emma's mystic searching in refulgently sunny San Remo - a little easier than finding a needle in a haystack - is recorded with panache and suspense. With palpitating senses, when the target is close by, she wonders how to make contact. Her reaction in an earlier notable sequence, where another parent might have suffered apoplexy, on discovering that her daughter Elisabetta is lesbian, is extraordinarily accepting and calm as the lens tracks her movement through the city and amidst Duomo di Milano's formidable geometric mesh.
And then there's the opening sequence itself. Choice captures of wintry Milan then segue into that gorgeous mansion which makes stunning use of marble, glossy wood, upholstery and royally large windows which, especially in the lounge, stretch from wainscoting to ceiling, offering fairytale vistas of filtered light coming in from the garden. Avoiding gratuitous coverage, the lens takes in the interiors with exactly judicious captures achieved by Le Saux's camerawork which enriches every scene of the film with its automatic grace in movement and deep aesthetics in framing.
Perhaps the most bravura and executively challlenging of the sequences, ensues as a pair of lovers, who couldn't sustain their togetherness on the plains, journey to sun-kissed hills where their love-making is illustrated with the eye of a top artist. John Adam's agile orchestra and panting violins are expertly calibrated to highlight the throes of bare lovers as they carnally celebrate. Imaging, in an inspired move, cuts between scenes of nature and the au naturelle rapture of their bodies. Making love, has rarely if ever been touched upon with such a unreservedly intense yet deeply artistic vision.
Memorable characters pepper the feast. Old Europe is assaulted by post-colonial forces out to claim more than just revenge. The gent who proposes to take over the Recchi textile business, is a smooth-talking, insufferable new-age-philosophy-spouting young mogul who is given the ridiculously exotic name Shai Kubelkian (Waris Ahluwalia hamming it up in a icily calm way). His preposterous, softly stated 'wisdom', and flawless engagement with the ladies of his acquisitioned house, is something we may contrast with the no-nonsense stewardship of Ida (Maria Paiato). Guadagnino's formibadle marshalling of his roster-full of resources is reflecting even in the detailing of this minor character particularly in the finale. Throughout the movie, she remains a tidily attired, solidly built, assiduously working pillar of emotional support for the family when they need a shoulder to cry on and someone to talk to , apart from the round-the-clock upkeep of that demanding estate.
As the epicenter of this movie's flux, Emma as protrayed by Tilda Swinton is a landmark example of atypical casting. In a superbly understated performace , there is vulnerability, a genuinely tender heart and innate grace in her layered portrayal. As the middle-aged mistress of the house who was transplanted decades ago to this very rich family, Emma remains polite, sincere and down-to-earth, gaining trust and acceptance of its insiders. The opening sequence is a splendid synecdoche of her temperament. Though she is the queen of the mansion, she calmly and keenly attends to the planning of the momentous family dinner thus showing her commitment to the nitty-gritties. At the dinner when her father-in-law (who is fond of her) makes a good-natured jab at his grand-son,she looks at her ward with a special blended expression of amusement and sympathy that does not go overboard. To mollify her daughter for whom the rest of the family also claps in sympathetic encouragement, she holds and kisses her and then with delicacy and feeling utters some words inaudible to us, in a fashion uncannily similar to how the "royals" make seemingly involved small-talk with the ballboys-'n'-girls in Wimbledon pre-match ceremonies. Towards the end when grieving Emma, her formal gown unchanged, slumps into bed in a small spartan room set away from the rest of the grand house, and Ida wakes her up next morning with a gentle 'You have to get up' and Emma slowly awakens with a beleaguered face, throughout this ordeal there is never any forceful sorrow displayed yet it is easy to sense the deep ache in her bones and soul.
Swinton is slim and tall - two definite physical assets but she's not an automatic choice for a leading lady as we've known from her previous films. This is where director Guadagnino's perspectives are telling - he says : " I think beauty is a very overrated concept. In particular what is overrated is the idea that beauty comes objectively. From this perspective I'm not interested in it at all. And I'm definitely not interested in style. I'm interested in form, in the shape of things. And in commitment to the degree of never letting go the quest for the meaning of things. That can come off as beauty and style, but that's not where I start from."
Why does Emma make that (to use a polite sophisticated word) "crazy" choice to throw away everything - respect, family, huge wealth, societal approval - just to follow a call of the heart? If she actually decides to stay on with her new-found lover, she will be in her seventies when he is in his fifties. It may be plainly stated that Emma belongs to that category of ladies, of less than one in hundred, who have the capacity to make a choice, greatly damaging to so many people, so late in their lives because their heart never got old; it has remained dangerously young and devoid of the circuitry that makes the usual brain such a safe place. The other vital answer is that she is a construct of director Guadagnino - a man who has led the kind of life he has, knows very well the savage price one pays for being true to heart.
Other critics have carped that the penultimate phase of the film 'descends' into stereotypical melodrama. Yes it does - an uncomfortable situation partially resolved by an extreme turn of events, with grieving thereafter. Even here Guadagnino is perhaps slyly offering a play of contrasts as if to say - yes, this is your bit of standard-issue TV soap with its familiar suds and tears - only to show us in the ensuing phase which is the finale how he takes the same template of melodrama and launches it into the empyrean.
It starts with a preamble piece in a high-ceiling church superbly informed by silence from the composer. The usually prim and elegant Emma, now devastated, has never looked more miserable than she is made to look in that damp cathedral. The orchestra then magnificently rears up for the next part of the finisher back in the mansion - a finale that dazzlingly blends cinema with opera. The course of events is pretty simple but is directed with monumental vision. Frenetic physical movement is married to an earthquake of detachment as a life-altering decision is quickly made. A lady places her hand on her heart and looks at her misty-eyed daughter - there are no words but we sense what is being advised. Ida weeps grievously and we feel her crushing sorrow. There is a swooping movement onto an empty carpet and thence to those grand glass doors which are now ajar...
Even the textured canvas which fills the screen to carry the end credits, is a work of art.
Incredibly, there is inserted an epilogue of sorts, lasting only a few moments, set in a cave - akin to a vaguely savoury wholly out-of-place tidbit at the end of a show-stopping dessert. It's as though Guadagnino looked back to see the enormity of what he had achieved and then decided in a demented nebulous state of mind to besmirch a corner of the canvas at the end.
But that matters little. What remains towering is a work the aesthetics of which can proudly establish entry into the international textbook of how to make a film. And on a personal level, lo Sono L'Amore will last as an elegant anatomic detailing of that invisible weapon of mass destruction called love.