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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Back in 1999, Italian director Luca Guadagnino made a thriller called, "The Protagonist" featuring English actress Tilda Swinton. The two became friends who spent hours discussing the nature of love, both in life and in the movies. The result of their conversations is Guadagnino's acclaimed new film "I Am Love" which stars Swinton as a wealthy wife and mother who gets involved with a younger man.

Our critic-at-large, John Powers, says the movie offer grownup audiences something they've been missing.

JOHN POWERS: A few days ago, I was watching Criterion's breathtaking new Blu-ray of "The Leopard," Luchino Visconti's story of an aristocratic Sicilian family dealing with the ultimate human truth - passing time. It's a wonderful film that seems all the more wonderful because it's the kind of intelligent, lavishly appointed adult drama that has become almost extinct.

That's one reason why I, and many other critics, are so high on the new Italian film "I Am Love." Directed and co-written by Luca Guadagnino, "I Am Love" is a self-conscious throwback to an earlier style of filmmaking. It's sumptuous, operatic, and swooning with a passion so grand, that like most grand passions, or at least those of other people, it occasionally feels a bit silly.

Tilda Swinton stars as Emma, the Russian-born wife of Tancredo Recchi, the scion of a present-day Milanese dynasty that has made a fortune in the textiles business. Although this couple would appear to have it made - the Recchis enjoy every luxury, from a fabulous mansion to attractive children - Emma finds their life something of an ermine-lined prison. But she finds a way out when she meets Antonio; that's Edoardo Gabbriellini, a handsome young chef who happens to be the friend of her son, Edo.

Transported by Antonio's cooking - her first taste of a prawn dish is almost comically orgasmic - the tamped-down Emma dives into a romance that threatens to shatter the Recchis' elegant world.

Now, a married woman taking a lover is hardly the world's newest story; just ask that other straying Emma, Ms. Bovary. But Guadagnino makes it feel fresh by looking to the past. He deliberately echoes masters like Visconti and Douglas Sirk, who used high style to capture romantic desires that carried their characters outside their ordinary lives. Guadagnino suffuses everything with beauty, be it Yorick Le Saux's fluid cinematography, the richly textured music by John Adams or the outfits, specially designed for Swinton, by Jil Sander and Fendi. Even the food was prepared by a Michelin-starred chef.

All of this reminds us, of course, that the Recchis have oodles of money. Not that Guadagnino beats them up for that. This is one movie about the rich you wouldn't mind living in, even if you wouldn't want to be a Recchi. Yet even as the movie lets us wallow in upper-crust glamour - which is one reason I've always liked going to the movies - it uses this glamour to evoke a transcendent passion that doesn't depend on fine things. It's no accident that Emma and Antonio find their truest bliss not in an exquisite Milanese house but, shades of Lady Chatterley, in his vegetable garden outside San Remo.

At the same time, Guadagnino takes care to do something that Tolstoy and Flaubert did. He puts Emma's affair within a changing social world. History is shifting beneath the Recchis' feet. The textile industry is becoming globalized, and while Emma's husband wants to sell out to international investors, her son Edo hopes to keep the business in the family and preserve its venerable traditions.

Edo might almost be seen as Guadagnino's alterego, for the driving passion in "I Am Love" is his feeling for cinematic traditions that are all but gone. Not just style and beauty and glamour, but the belief - once commonplace, but now radical - that movies ought to convey big emotions. Of course, we all know firsthand that no emotion is bigger than the exalting and disruptive power of sexual love. Yet movies today obviously feel uncomfortable with such intense feeling - except, of course, for the adolescent ardor in "Twilight," where the sex is famously deferred.

Things are much more grown-up in "I Am Love," which wears its heart on its expensively tailored sleeve. Celebrating the emotion that most movies fear, it reminds us that a middle-aged woman risking everything for love can be more thrilling - and explosive - than any action picture.

BIANCULLI: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and vogue.com. You can see film clips from "I Am Love" by visiting our website, freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts.

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