July 25, 2010

'I Am Love' full of food, romance and, well, love

Tilda Swinton and Mattia Zaccaro star in “I Am Love.”
"I Am Love" is a stunning feast for the eyes and the palate, an Italian film that tells the story of a wealthy family in Milan that is undergoing change and a woman searching for romantic freedom.

A fortune constructed on manufacturing is about to change hands as a family patriarch is retiring. The brood's many good fortunes have also been built, the great man states, on unity. He expects that handing the reins to his son and grandson as stewards will ensure that the business, and the family, keep running smoothly.

At the heart of this arthouse film is a powerhouse performance from Tilda Swinton. Even when framed against imposing cathedrals and lavish gardens (this film's cinematography is stunning), Swinton is the focus of any image in which she is present.

Through both her catlike grace and physicality, and her nuanced expressions, it is impossible to take your eyes off of her.

"I Am Love" is a throwback melodrama, at times calling to mind Douglas Sirk's 1950s works in tone. It features one of the most operatic scores in recent memory, and on many occasions it overwhelms the film with a cacophony of horns and percussion instruments.

The picture is certainly a mood piece, and it won't be everyone's cup of limoncello. But for those in the mood for one of those desperately romantic, anything-for-love tragedies, it may prove intoxicating.

Swinton, who speaks fluent Italian as well as Russian in the movie, plays Emma, a woman caught in the middle on several fronts regarding her ultra-rich, Fendi-clad family. All that she has known is suddenly changing.

Her husband is going to run the family business (but he wants to sell), in combination with her son (who wants to honor his grandfather's wishes and keep the firm intact). She has discovered that her away-at-college daughter is falling in love — with a woman.

Her son, Edoardo, has also gotten engaged, and on top of the family business, he wants to open a restaurant. He has a new friend, Antonio, who's a gifted chef. Antonio intrigues Emma, quite a cook herself; Emma intrigues Antonio.

Clearly influenced by the change and amore surrounding her, Emma engages Antonio in an affair that has the look of "Lady Chatterley's Lover" at times. A sensuous food scene, which will either make audience members blush or giggle, calls to mind a "Tom Jones" moment.

The scene involves prawns. The trance that Emma falls into while eating Antonio's dish in a restaurant (Swinton has referred to the scene as "prawnography") shows that this moment of gastronomic perfection is all the remaining seduction needed to push her into the younger man's arms.

Filmmaker Luca Guadagnino makes food the film's key element: Such creations can provide nutrition and nourishment; they can be displayed as art; they can change the way that one sees the world.

It's not as well-done a cinematic device as some have created to show the power of food (see Ang Lee's "Eat, Drink, Man, Woman," a personal favorite among many), but it's a tasty decision.

Swinton is a revelation, combining matronly strength with feminine vulnerability. With regard to multiple steamy scenes, her established icy reserve makes her moment of losing control that much more powerful.

The only thing more overpowering is the music by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Adams ("Nixon in China"), his first motion picture score. It's not that such grandeur wasn't common in films of 50 years ago, but they prove intrusive over multiple uses in the film.

But the combined effects of "I Am Love" impossible to deny. For those who like their romance sexy, messy and tragic in tone, the reaction may be obvious: That's amore.

Stars: Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini

Theater: Circle Cinema

Running time: 2 hours

Rated: R (sexuality and nudity)

Quality: (on a scale of zero to four stars)

Notes: in Italian with English subtitles
Original Print Headline: I am love

By MICHAEL SMITH World Scene Writer


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