That’s amore: Coming of age in Italy
By: Matt Brunson
Repeat performers appear to have been all the rage in 2017, as a sizable number of actors spread their talents across two or more films that have taken the reins during awards season. Caleb Landry Jones, previously best known for playing Banshee in 2011’s X-Men: First Class, appeared in no less than three films that landed on my 10 Best list: The Florida Project, Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (apparently a workaholic, Jones also popped up last year in the Tom Cruise starrer American Made and on T.V.’s Twin Peaks revival). Tracy Letts, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who also enjoys acting, landed choice roles as Saoirse Ronan’s dad in Lady Bird and Meryl Streep’s lawyer in The Post. Bradley Whitford in Get Out and The Post; Lucas Hedges in Lady Bird and Three Billboards; Jesse Plemons in The Post and Hostiles; Michael Stuhlbarg in The Post, Call Me by Your Name and The Shape of Water — even within the sizable Hollywood family, the overlapping is so pronounced that it’s almost incestuous.
And then there’s Timothée Chalamet, who seemingly appeared out of nowhere to win over a dozen critics’ awards (including three of the big four) — not bad for a kid who could only legally buy a drink approximately 12 months ago. Chalamet appeared in supporting parts in Lady Bird and Hostiles (which finally opens wide next weekend), but it’s his starring role in Call Me by Your Name that’s been allowing him to rack up the plaques and statues. It’s easy to see the reason. Young actors who headline coming-of-age tales are required to carry much of the picture’s emotional bulk, and Chalamet pulls it off with uncanny intuition. In that respect, Call Me by Your Name serves as a lovely bookend piece to Lady Bird, which finds Ronan similarly delivering a smashing turn as a teenager coping with growing pains.
While Lady Bird is set in Sacramento in 2002, Call Me by Your Name travels a farther distance regarding both time and geography. Unfolding in Italy in 1983, it finds 17-year-old Elio (Chalamet) enjoying a leisurely summer in a lovely villa owned by his parents. Elio’s Jewish-American dad, Mr. Perlman (Stuhlbarg), is an archaeology professor, while his Jewish-Italian mom, Annella (Amira Casar), is a translator — they’re both highly intelligent and highly compassionate, and one of the absolute joys of the film is basking in the closeness and the comfort all three enjoy together (a far cry from the dysfunctional families generally seen on screen).
Every year, Mr. Perlman invites a graduate student to assist him with his work; this summer, it happens to be Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old hunk who’s as smoldering as he is smart. Elio has a girlfriend in the sweet and sensible Marzia (Esther Garrel), but he nevertheless finds himself drawn to Oliver. Their mutual attraction soon leads to the pair embarking on an affair, and everything seems to be going peachy until both realize that summer is coming to a close and their remaining time together is short-lived.
André Aciman’s novel has been adapted by James Ivory (best known as half of the Merchant-Ivory brain trust that created such exquisite period pieces as Howards End and The Remains of the Day), with Luca Guadagnino (A Bigger Splash) serving as director. Together, they have fashioned a film that works on various levels, not the least being its insistence on lush visual cues. The laziness of the summer season, when adolescent cares are few and inviting bodies of water loom large, is captured in resplendent fashion, and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom and editor Walter Fasano beautifully pace the picture to capture these intoxicating vibes.
The relationship between a 17-year-old and a 24-year-old might understandably give many pause, particularly in the current climate of Spacey-Weinstein shenanigans. Yet, significantly, that’s not the case here (although, predictably, the heinous and homophobic hypocrite James Woods took to Twitter to rally fellow alt-right idiots, prompting Hammer to retort, “Didn’t you date a 19-year-old when you were 60?”). Call Me by Your Name isn’t a brutish tale of power abuse but rather one of a youngster discovering his own desires and proclivities during that period when experiences and experimentation are as crucial to one’s development as food and water (at any rate, the age of consent in Italy is 14, so, despite Woods’ whining, no man-made laws were being broken).
The movies’ dual themes of family and first love are particularly brought home in a smashing monologue delivered by Mr. Perlman to his son, a sensitive speech invoking parental pride, bittersweet ruminations, and that cherished storytelling standby: the road not taken, but one that will forever wind through the recesses of the mind.