"If I think about the future of cinema as art, I shiver" (Y. Ozu, 1959)

LOTTE IN ITALIA (2) - Call Me By Your Name (Luca Guadagnino)

Thursday, 20 July 2017 09:25

Giona A. Nazzaro

Luca Guadagnino, Italian cineaste


The artistic journey of Luca Guadagnino is possibly one the most enthralling stories of 21st-century Italian cinema. Apparently fragmented and provocatively non-linear, at a closer look it is monolithic in its authorial consistence. Inevitably, this kind of terms may raise diffidence among cross-media critics (who are now almost incapable of reading signs and gazes) towards an opus that has vertiginously been faithful to its own pleasure principle and to the idea of a cinema shaken by a constant need of rewriting and renaming itself.

The career of the Sicilian-born film director – who, from I Am Love onwards, has gone through an extraordinary evolution – currently represents an important synthesis of an idea of Italian cinema that has not been practised since after the Seventies, when film directors such as Bernardo Bertolucci were able to retain their national identity while working in terms of trans-national cinema. In this sense, the lesson of an Italian cinephilia, or rather an Italian thinking about cinema that was no longer parochial or content-driven - like the one affirmed by Bertolucci or Pasolini, or even the Dario Argento of the Seventies and the Antonioni of stateless film-making - coincides with a particular formulation of the nouvelle vague. In fact, unlike the French movement (in very broad terms), this was carried out in an industrial context, also thanks to a politically important producer such as Grimaldi. Not only did this industrial dimension contribute to the encounter/clash with the audience, but it also helped inject linguistic breaks and formal inventions straight into the productive body of film industry.

Guadagnino surfaced at the end of film, i.e. a 20th-century experience, and namely after one of the most devastating crises that affected the Italian film industry – the grey area between late Eighties-early Nineties, in which it seemed to have lost all contact with the audience as well as the capacity of relating with the rest of European cinema and the international film industry.

Guadagnino began his career with his desiring gaze in a very little “Italian” context – paradoxically, an unmistakably Italian one for this very reason. His early trials with the moving image are carried out within a purely desiring, seduction-wrapped dimension; in his words, he aims to re-write the desire of cinema. This work has not to do with a banal remixing of cinephiliac codes but with an attempt to reconstruct – rather than deconstruct according to late postmodern diktats – the image of cinema, i.e. the illusion of a cinematic absolute. Even though Guadagnino is well aware of its inexistence, it allows him to outline the perimeter of his action – another real, that determines immediately and politically the goal: another world.

Luca Guadagnino is a spurious heir of film. On one hand, the desire for cinema, the silver screen, the light beam, the eroticism conveyed by the film industry, with its long line of ghosts walking on the wake of light waves and particles. On the other hand, the legacy of the home reproducibility of images and stories, i.e. an eroticism driven by the libido derived from the seduction of owning (and therefore stripping down) the images beloved. Guadagnino started working with VHSs and low-res pictures, obscurely (or lucidly) knowing that you always travel backwards, back to the original light beam.

In this sense, Guadagnino, just like the great Italian modernists mentioned above, is driven by the desire to keep on breaking down the remains of the image as well as to return these fragments to the greatness of the pictures made by a Bertolucci or a Leone (another inescapable transnational Italian name who never gave up filming like a daydreaming child never got out of his native Trastevere).

The pillar of Luca Guadagnino’s poetics is precisely this spurious ‘Italianness’ that loves to blend in with the apparently cosmopolitan precision of a gesture and a gaze. In the absence of a critical thinking suited for understanding this work, the film director ironically, but also with passionate rigour, provides clues to ‘see’ his cinema in one of his latest films, A Bigger Splash.

A perfect and cruel reverse shot of Fire at Sea, A Bigger Splash is that rare and politically accomplished film which avoids all the traps set by the discussion on “film and commitment” while implementing the power and precision of the cinematic gesture as the key to understand reality. A set of knowingly and explicitly contradictory elements, it constructs a sort of dodecaphony on the decadence of European liberal and bourgeois thinking while Africa continues to move forward from the background. The somewhat site-specific gaze of Guadagnino, that seems to try to remap Italy (ergo the world), was not understood, possibly on purpose. It was repressed. However, the clarity of the job ultimately remains, in spite of the rejection (an exclusively Italian rejection, for the movie was a big success worldwide).

Like a SF film director, Guadagnino always manages to re-enchant the world. The powerful flagrancy of the bodies is the correlative of a territory (or territories) that his gaze reinvents unremittingly. His tying the land to the bodies reveals a tangibly erotic pleasure, also to be found in Bertolucci, a sort of rural alchemy that condenses in the fascination for food and its secrets.

Guadagnino’s Italianness is not contaminated by nostalgia or mourning. Not only does he not regret the cinema of the golden days, but he is not set on bringing back to life that which isn’t anymore. He works in the perspective of exile, a political exile, which allows him finding the right distance to detach himself and then come back (even though he knows, as Nick Ray did, that you can’t go back [anymore]...); just as Bertolucci, Leone, Antonioni..., who went as far away as they could to find their own voice and perspective, to find the sign of their desire.

The locus-narration of the cinema of Guadagnino is a critical laboratory – because his film-making is also a ‘critical’ practice – in which film, or its remains, its ‘aura’, represents the possibility of regenerating itself, or ‘another’ cinema.

A crucial factor in Guadagnino’s film-making is his painstaking care for detail, not a fetishist one because it is always integrated in the creation of a gaze and a desire. For example, his Lombardy, an ideal, Viscontiesque one, as if discovered from across a window in a lazy summer afternoon, is part and parcel of a process made of fantastic conjuring; a locus-narration of elements that get more distant rather than closer. In this freedom of roaming and moving lies another motive of Guadagnino’s film-making. Things are never where they are supposed to be. One has to look again to understand their motion.

Luca Guadagnino, like Bernardo Bertolucci, Antonioni, Leone, and Argento, opens up to the world carrying with him the Italian specificity of a gaze that constantly turns into difference. This fickle locus, the bearer of an open identity, is the prime mover of a making that has always and primarily asked the question of “how to” rather than “what to” do.

With Call Me By Your Name, his latest work that has been offered to Guadagnino after James Ivory passed on the project, the Italian director signs another masterful film. Without surrendering to the temptation of directing a straightforward gay melodrama, Guadagnino fleshes out a complex framework of his cinematographical genealogy. Renoir, obviously, is the venerable presence conjured throughout the film when the leaves rustles in the garden or the summer rain beats gently on the roofs of the viscontian mansion while exhausted bodies seek solace from the summer heat. Guadagnino - while filming without any nostalgia an Italian and arcadic landscape - evokes a cosmopolitan society on the verge of disappearing. Situated at the very end of the seventies - the so called leaden years - that were the last symptons of the political upheavals stemmed from the ‘77 movement, while Berlusconi was plotting his way up the ladder of political hierarchy, the film is also a painstakingly accurate portrait of a complex social and antropological transformation. 

Like Visconti, Guadagnino plays out his political approach not by sticking to an ideological agenda, but by putting his own desire and body into play. Thus, his way of filming, sensual and precise, erotic and analytical, becomes the polemical counterpoint to a cinema that has seemingly forgotten the rules of engagement by neglecting the sheer pleasure of the act of filming and the challenges of a gaze committed only to capture the epiphanies of a restless beauty. 

Luca Guadagnino is a complex filmmaker. But his pleasure in making a film is in itself a political statement: substituting the filmic reality to the one that offers itself as objective  and unchageable. 

And it is indeed this pleasure - at once somehow slightly arrogant but also gently vulnerable - that allows him to be one of the most engaging cinematographical personalities working today. No small feat.  



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