The Italy of your dreams only exists in movies like “Call Me By Your Name”

Realer than real.
Realer than real.
Image: Photo courtesy of Sony Motion Pictures
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As an Italian, I’m always curious to see representations of my country on the silver screen. And so, on the first day of 2018, I went with a dear friend to watch Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name. My expectations weren’t especially high. I’d found I Am Love, Guadagnino’s previous movie set in Italy, to be little more than sophisticated eye candy.

But contrary to my expectations, the northern Italy of Call Me By Your Name—indulgent, ancient, and unapologetically beautiful—felt instantly familiar. I gasped in the theater as I caught glimpses of my own hometown, Bergamo, in some scenes, recognizing the narrow streets I walked every day on my way to school; the corner where, one foggy night, at 16, a boy I loved, who loved me back, broke my heart so gently I didn’t notice it, at first.

The Italy of Call Me By Your Name, set in 1983, is a fantasy. But it’s the kind of fantasy that gets at a deeper truth. Guadagnino’s cinematic version of Italy is at once better than the real Italy and Italy exactly as I remember it. The luxury of being surrounded by history and art in such gorgeous landscapes may be a cliché—but as a romantic, homesick emigrant living in New York City, so am I.

Part of the movie’s resonance can be attributed to the subject of the film: a summer romance between Elio, a precocious 17-year-old spending the summer in his family home in Italy, and Oliver, his father’s intern, a few years older. You don’t have to be Italian to recognize the endless, sweaty days of summer, or the breathless love, at once violent and tender, that perhaps only exists in that perfect limbo between childhood and youth that is adolescence. Many of us didn’t have a soundtrack by Sufjan Stevens accompanying our summer love—I believe I listened to Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me” on repeat that summer. But don’t all songs, anchored to far-away memories, feel the same?

Another reason Call Me By Your Name doesn’t feel annoyingly stereotypical is the movie’s setting. Rather than focus on classic cinematic paradises like Florence, Venice, or Capri, it’s set in a part of Italy that doesn’t get quite as much screen time. (Vittorio De Sica portrayed another part of the same landscape, Italy’s large Pianura Padana, in the 1970 masterpiece, Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini). The beauty of small-town northern Italy is casual and omnipresent, portrayed in the film as a seductive force, at once witness to and enabler of desire. It’s a place of mountains, lakes, and unpaved paths that cut through endless fields. Yet the effect is more comforting than awe-inspiring. The homes look as if they’re guarding a secret that you want to discover.

A house like Elio’s, with its grand decadence, is not commonplace, but not that unusual to come by. In fact, it looks just like a dear high school friend’s—a perfect treasure chest of secret frescoed rooms and hidden crannies. It was in her garden, so similar to Elio’s, with plants growing wild and perfectly crumbling old fountains, that I gave my first kiss to that very same boy—he did love me, you see.

The movie’s depiction of the love story between Elio and Oliver muffles uglier realities. Homophobia is easily forgotten amidst the carefree Italian summer, and Elio’s accepting parents and perceptive friends. Similarly, only the pretty parts of Italy are emphasized in the film. Italy in the early 1980s was a unique time of prosperity and optimism, still mythological in the country’s collective historical conscience. This period was followed by the unfolding of corruption scandals, the Berlusconi decades, and then the great recession of the 2000s. There are details that hint at the disasters to come: a dinner table fight about politics; a newspaper headline reporting the infamous jailbreak of financier and self-professed fascist Licio Gelli; the maid and her friend discussing prime minister Bettino Craxi, now remembered as the ultimate corrupt Italian politician. These foreboding details are buried in the background. But then again, that is exactly the amount space the real world takes up in your mind, when you’re as busy falling in love as Elio. And this may ultimately be what makes this love story feel so universal—transcending place, time, perhaps even gender.

When I walked out of the theater, as my friend and I shared our aching nostalgia, we tried to remind ourselves: The Italy we’d just seen doesn’t really exist. In real life, Italy is also a place tainted with corruption and nepotism. It’s pretty much robbed my generation of a stable future. Nearly a decade after the great recession, the country has the highest percentage in Europe of inactive young people—that is, youth who are neither working, studying, nor training. Without a sweeping romance in the foreground, to look at Italy is to feel your heart break, despite its beauty—or perhaps, all the more because of it.