Movie Review - 'I Am Love' - Passion Stirs Behind A Cool Facade Tilda Swinton plays the reserved Russian-born matriarch of a prosperous Italian clan in a sumptuously filmed melodrama set in 1930s Milan. Mark Jenkins says it's mildly contrived -- but emotionally powerful nonetheless.
NPR logo 'I Am Love': Passion Stirs Behind A Cool Facade



'I Am Love': Passion Stirs Behind A Cool Facade

Model Matriarch: Actress Tilda Swinton puts her multilingual prowess to work as Emma, a Russian woman married into an upper-crust Italian family. Magnolia Pictures hide caption

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Magnolia Pictures

I Am Love

  • Director: Luca Guadagnino
  • Genre: Art, Drama
  • Running Time: 120 minutes
Rated R for sexual situations, nudity.

With: Tilda Swinton, Alba Rohrwacher, Marisa Berenson, Edoardo Gabbriellini

'Can I Tell You Something?'

'Remember Antonio?'

'Tancredi Collected Art'

You are what you eat. Also, you are where you live. These are the two animating principles of I Am Love, a sumptuous yet ultimately unpersuasive Italian melodrama that pays close attention to food and furnishings.

The movie opens with wintry views of Milan's Central Station and its vast plaza. If the neoclassical architectural grandeur evokes Mussolini, that's no accident: Writer-director Luca Guadagnino is about to introduce the Recchi clan, who got rich under Il Duce's fascist regime. Eventually, one of the characters will mention this, but by then the swirling interior shots of the family's 1930s palazzo have already made the point. Before the story ends, the Recchi family will splinter, an upheaval foreshadowed by a few minor incidents at a birthday dinner for grandpa Edoardo (Gabriele Ferzetti).

Coolly supervising the servants preparing the meal, Emma (Tilda Swinton) appears to be a model of Italian domestic virtue and efficiency. It comes as a surprise to learn that she's actually Russian, married to Edoardo's son Tancredi, and that she converses in her native tongue with Edo (Flavio Parenti), the one of her three grown children to whom she's closest. (The multilingual Swinton, having done Hungarian in The Man from London and German in more than one film, seems to be working her way through the modern European languages; perhaps she'll retire after playing a Basque-speaking character.)

As a gift, granddaughter Betta (Alba Rohrwacher) presents the patriarch with one of her photographs; the old man, who prefers drawings, quietly disapproves. Then Edoardo announces his retirement, leaving the textile firm to son Tancredi (Pippo Delbono) and grandson Edo. But that transition will have less serious consequences than the arrival of Edo's new friend Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a talented chef.

Betta enrolls at a London art college, where she falls in love with a woman.

This unexpected crack in the Recchis' bourgeois veneer rattles her mother, yet also inspires her. After a soul-stirring meal at the restaurant where Antonio cooks, Emma follows the young man to San Remo. He takes her to his family's property in the mountains, and they begin an affair. Emma is so smitten that she even teaches Antonio how to make her Russian fish soup, an intimate (and crucial) gift.

In a moment that recalls the silliest of early-'70s youth-culture romances, the director intercuts the couple's outdoor lovemaking with close-ups of nature's most fecund glories. But the lust-in-the-dust swoon is a minor distraction compared to the movie's big tumble -- a domestic calamity that will sever Emma's ties with the Recchis. To convince, this event should feel inevitable; instead it seems false, even unnecessary.

Despite the contrived climax, I Am Love has emotional power. The contrast between duty and passion is well-drawn, and Swinton's transition from winter matriarch to springtime lover is compelling, even if the circumstances are implausible.

Igniting An Affair: Edoardo Gabbriellini (left) plays Antonio, a talented chef who catches Emma's eye. Magnolia Pictures hide caption

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Magnolia Pictures

Igniting An Affair: Edoardo Gabbriellini (left) plays Antonio, a talented chef who catches Emma's eye.

Magnolia Pictures

Like architecture, cinema uses light and space to dramatic effect, and the movie's scenario seems to have been inspired by specific buildings and locales. San Remo, with its unexpected Russian Orthodox church, is the place for Emma to shed her Italian guise and recapture the feelings of her Russian youth. And the Recchis' cold, formal Milan mansion characterizes the family better than any of the dialogue. (While in Britain, the director can't resist a peek at the modernist Lloyd's of London building.)

I Am Love is the first film to use the use the music of Nixon in China composer John Adams, which is solidly constructed and rigorously symmetrical. The score wasn't written for the movie, but it fits well. Adams' cyclical rhythms and shimmering strings surround the Recchis like another grand structure -- one with no available exit except tragedy.