Love melodrama

It is fitting that “I Am Love,” a 2009 Italian film that opened in the U.S. last summer, is being shown as part of a dinner-and-movie event this Friday at the quad, because most of its pleasures are culinary.

A two-hour-long family saga, it begins at the birthday feast of the Rechhi family patriarch, whose textiles factories have made the family rich. But things are about to change—the old man announces that he is handing over the company to his son, Tancredi, and grandson, Edo.

The joyous scene suddenly becomes quietly tense—director Luca Guadagnino barely glances his camera toward Tancredi, but for an instant we can see that the father is restraining a grimace at the thought of sharing power with his son. 

That same night, Edo’s friend Antonio, a chef, comes to drop off a cake. As he walks away in a snowstorm, Edo’s mother Emma (played by Tilda Swinton, who learned Italian-with-a-Russian-accent for the role), stares at him out the window. From that look alone, it is not hard to guess what happens next. Emma becomes infatuated with Antonio—she even seems to have a gastronomically-induced orgasm after eating a prawn dish of his—and soon the two are frolicking naked in the Italian countryside. Along the way, Guadagnino employs conventional plot devices—secretly found letters and locks of hair play large roles. 

Wealthy adultery, family strife, the dissolution of a family business empire—these are all characteristic soap opera events And for a film made by Italians, “I Am Love” is a little too touristic—a dark handsome chef seduces an older woman while cooking for her in the Italian countryside. The plot reminded me of those Barilla pasta commercials in which an American woman is entranced by an Italian pasta chef skillfully cooking while opera plays in the background. 

But Guadagnino and his cast seem to be aware of these dangers, and are often at their best during the film’s most ostensibly melodramatic scenes. When Antonio and Emma begin their affair, for example, the first shot is simply a reflection of them kissing in a blurry window. After a traumatic incident, we just see Swinton, almost out of the frame, frozen and clasping her hands. Swinton is in solid command of the film throughout—highly emotional but never melodramatic. 

Going into the third act, the drama builds as Emma’s husband prepares to sell the family company, though Edo opposes him. At the same time the son is becoming suspicious of his mother’s relations with Antonio. Over one intense dinner, everything changes for the family. It is a scene in which Swinton, a talented actress in general, is particularly superb. 

“I Am Love” will be shown in Harris Sat. at 1:30 p.m., then as part of a special dinner-and-a-movie event in the Quad that night. In many ways the dinner should fit well with the family dinner that starts its story. The characters aren’t completely fresh, the storyline is rather conventional, but it’s still spicy and garnished well enough to be enjoyable.