As humans, we're wired for order and chaos, discipline and disorder, reason and passion. This fundamental dichotomy is a major source of conflict in our lives and in the fictions we create. One permutation of this theme " the individual caught between duty and desire " has been retold a thousand times in a thousand ways, but, depending on who's telling it, it's a story that still has the power to captivate.
In "I Am Love," our duty-bound passion-seeker is Emma (Tilda Swinton, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"), a middle-aged mother and wife. Emma is married to Tancredi (Pippo Delbono), who, along with his son, Edoardo (Flavio Parenti), has inherited control of his family's textile manufacturing business from his father, the family's patriarch.
As Tancredi moves into his father's position as head of the family and its business, Emma is expected to move into the role of family matriarch, executing dinner parties and other events designed to maintain and advance the family's social and business standing in Milan. As she moves into this role, it becomes apparent that the family's very identity is structured around its business and wealth, something that must be maintained at any personal cost.
The Italian film screens Friday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Edoardo, who is supposed to be running the business with his father, is instead pushed to the side. To keep himself occupied, Edoardo begins a business relationship with Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a gifted chef.
Emma begins contracting Antonio's services for her various soirées. On a visit to the countryside to see the future restaurant's location, the pair let passions subdue their rationality, allowing nature to watch as nature takes its course.
Emma and Antonio keep things under wraps at first, but their desire for each other leads to slips, and they are eventually discovered. The carefully constructed, rigid set of relationships the family has created to maintain its wealth and social standing begins tottering, and you just know someone will be crushed underneath when it finally comes down.
There's nothing especially clever or original about this plot, and no one's pretending there is. What charm "Love" contains is in its execution. For some, this aspect of the movie will please, as it's full of cultural tourist moments in which we get to see how rich Milanese people entertain, torture and console themselves and each other. The Milanese architecture and the Italian countryside and coast don't hurt, either.
For others, the movie's overall quietness will become annoying. If you're not interested in the scenery, the pacing will seem slow, while the dramatic tension will feel like a slow burn that never fully ignites.
But really, the movie's execution is a reflection of its main message, which is that the greatest pleasure is to be found in the balance between chaotic physicality and ordered consideration. There are serious consequences to Emma's affair, but the important question is which sin caused them: her desire to break away, or the family's inhuman rigidity? --Mike Robertson