After recent elections in California and Maine, where voters cast their ballots against gay marriage, it's easy to lose sight of where the LGBT struggle for equal rights stands beyond the borders of the United States. Western Europe's approach to homosexuality is the most progressive First World region according to both its cultural attitudes and its laws. In Sweden, Spain, and the Netherlands, gay marriage is legal. Italy, however, has retained its strong ties to the Catholic church, which continues to condemn homosexuality. While its neighboring countries pass same-sex marriage laws, Italy, wracked with salacious sex scandals, opposes any recognition of gay marriage. So it is refreshing to discover, among the 11 films featured at this year's New Italian Cinema festival, Different From Whom? and Sea Purple, two very different films that address gay rights in Italy.
Different from Whom? (Diverso da chi?) is a contemporary political farce: brisk, knowing and witty. It's reminiscent in pace and style to recent films by Francis Veber, The Valet and The Dinner Game. The story concerns an openly gay politician, who is in a long-term relationship, and a power-hungry female politician who join forces to run for mayor and deputy mayor, respectively, of a small urban city. I can already see the film's tag line for its American release: "Politics makes strange bedfellows."
The two leads are both impossibly good-looking: Luca Argentero as Piero, with an aquiline profile rivaling an Armani model and Claudia Gerini as Adele, a smoldering, olive-skinned Greta Scacchi. In a way, this casting seems unfair to the (cliché-ridden yet not charmless) plot. Both actors are delicious to look at in various states of undress. Whether the audience members are coveting homosexual or heterosexual desire (or both), the director knows how to photograph his protagonists at their sensual best. To say that there isn't a single surprising moment in the story is beside the point. It is refreshing to see a film with a gay politician at its center, and the real world political and personal obstacles he faces.
In Sea Purple, the setting is Sicily during the late 19th century. The sepia tones and languid pace conjure up filmed versions of Thomas Hardy novels like John Schlesinger's 1967 Far from the Madding Crowd, where women who roam the countryside are wild and untamed, but dominated at home by a patriarchal society. The gorgeous sea and harsh habitat also reminded me of another Italian film, Respiro (2002), which captured a similar sense of the confinement and isolation that are intrinsic parts of these island lives.
In an impoverished, seaside Sicilian village, two women, Angela and Sara, do the unthinkable: they fall in love. At first, the reaction by Angela's father is predictable -- he beats her and then imprisons her. After much suffering, her parents arrive at a strange idea: along with the local priest, they will simply tell everyone that Angela is actually Angelo, a man. They all made a mistake at his birth. In this way, Angela and Sara can marry, and Angela can take over her father's business. While the story never shakes off its tragic tone, there are moments of happiness for the couple. The most unfortunate aspect of the film, however, is the soundtrack: a 1980s guitar solo coupled with a piano theme repurposed from The Exorcist. Whenever the film's lovely emotional moments actually call for understatement, or, heaven forbid, silence, this strangely inappropriate music appears. (If only there were a Soundtracks 101 course for working film directors. Less really is more.)
While neither of these films is an overt political statement calling for equal rights and the legalization of same-sex marriage, they do offer a glimpse inside one country's current cultural debate with itself. Where do gay men and women fit into society? At the moment, this question doesn't seem revolutionary, just timely. Both of these films simply normalize the on-screen presence of the LGBT community. But recognizing the very existence of gays is, at the very least, a hopeful step outside of the Italian celluloid closet. Would that politicians could take their cues from films like Different from Whom? and Sea Purple.
New Italian Cinema runs November 15-22, 2009. For a full schedule of screenings, tickets and information visit sffs.org.