Ozpetek’s queer melodrama excites and disappoints in equal measure
Italian cinema is finally discovering that films with gay and lesbian characters can do extremely well at the box-office, in spite of the country’s bigoted Catholicism and homophobia emanating from the Vatican and the Pope. The latest film to prove this marketability of homosexual themes and situations is Ferzan Ozpetek’s Le Fate Ignoranti (Ignorant Fairies). Well-received at the international film festivals in Berlin and Seattle, Ozpetek’s movie was released in Italy in the spring to good critical reviews and an excellent response from audiences that opened the possibility for the film to be distributed internationally. What has allowed Le Fate Ignoranti to go beyond the limited circles of homosexual spectators and become such a success? What narrative devices have been deployed by the Turkish-born, but Italian-based gay director to appeal to a vastly middle-class audience ignorant of gay and lesbian life?
In the words of her own mother Veronica (Erica Blanc), Antonia (Margherita Buy) is a woman who was never very curious about life. She married her schoolmate Massimo and settled down for a very comfortable upper-class life in a large villa inclusive of a Philippine maid on a nice pond in a posh suburb of Rome. She gave up her post-doctoral ambitions and contented herself with working as a doctor in a laboratory for STDs. Yet Antonia’s life is shattered when her husband is run over and killed by two cars while he is crossing the street. Trying to come to terms with her loss, Antonia goes through her husband’s belongings in a search for memories of their life together. But an inscription in the back of a painting that Massimo kept in his office reveals to her the painful truth that her husband had a lover. Through Massimo’s secretary, Antonia finds out the surname and the address from where the painting has been sent. Armed with her stubborn resolution to meet her husband’s lover, she descends into the working-class Ostiense district where she undergoes a second shock: Massimo’s lover turns out not to be a woman, as she had assumed, but the handsome hunk Michele (Stefano Accorsi), a night worker at the General Markets.
Michele’s rooftop flat is the center for the Sunday lunches of a heterogeneous group of people that mainstream society women such as Antonia would label as “different”: homosexuals, transsexuals, Turkish refugees, tarts with hearts, and people with AIDS. After the initial mutual suspicion, Michele and Antonia grow closer and closer and she becomes a regular at the community’s Sunday lunches. In one of their increasingly more frequent one-to-one chats, Michele and Antonia discover that they even share the same taste in poetry: their favorite author is the Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet. When Michele confesses to Antonia that he met Massimo in a bookstore while they were both hunting for a copy of Hikmet’s collected poems, she replies that the book had been a present for her and that Massimo had never heard of Hikmet. Are Michele and Antonia falling in love, united by Massimo’s phantom? At the end of the film, we are left wondering about Michele’s possible conversion to heterosexuality as Antonia leaves for a journey to an unspecified destination, but almost promising that she will soon return.
Le Fate Ignoranti is much better than other recent Italian movies dealing with homosexuality, including Ozpetek’s debut film Steam (The Turkish Bath), which promised steamy situations thanks to its title but whose plot only delivered boredom and predictability. In contrast with La Vespa e la Regina (also set in the Roman gay and lesbian community) and the mediocre A prima vista, Le Fate Ignoranti takes sexuality seriously and not as the point of departure for the usual parody of dubious taste. In addition, Margherita Buy, Stefano Accorsi, Erica Blanc, and the rest of the actors give extremely strong performances. The director has also been able to rely on a first-class cast of technician including Bruno Cesari, the Oscar-winning set-designer for Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. Yet the narrative of the film is caught within a major contradiction. While Ozpetek strives to portray the community gathering in Michele’s flat in an affirmative light, the spectator always focuses the situations in the film through Antonia’s point of view. Thus, Le Fate Ignoranti decidedly centers on her subjectivity and leads the audience to set up a stark contrast between her ordered, albeit unadventurous, upper-class existence, and the chaotic life of Michele’s open family.
Ozpetek’s intentions notwithstanding, the focalization through Antonia’s point of view is the structural element that enables the film to pander to the taste of middle-class audiences ignorant of gay and lesbian life. Le Fate Ignoranti becomes a titillating exploration of a radically different reality that allows Antonia to cross the boundaries of sexual orientations, social class, urban areas and ethnic groups. And yet this crossing is a safe one as it doesn’t imply Antonia’s renunciation of her upper-class existence and morality: she tries to hide when her Philippine maid sees her having an ice cream with Michele and, equally, she doesn’t reveal to her mother that her husband’s lover was a man, not a woman. The community of queers inhabiting Michele’s flat is kept at a distance from Antonia, and, at times, one has to conclude that it is Antonia who has a bigger impact on their lives rather than the other way round. After all, it is Antonia who has the guts to tell Michele’s friend Ernesto, bedridden with AIDS, that his lover has not abandoned him (as the rest of the group has made him believe for all this time) but died a long time ago. Antonia, who has known Ernesto only for a few months, is the only one to understand that such a revelation can finally lead Ernesto to come to terms with his grief and prompt him to fight his illness actively rather than surrendering to it as he has been doing all this time.
The strong performances and the beautiful interiors where the film is staged only partially cover up the major flaw of Le Fate Ignoranti: its screenplay. In their commercial appeal to bourgeois audiences, Ozpetek and his scriptwriter have conceived a plot that remains suspended between a proud affirmation of difference and a portrayal of a world which is still conceived as apart. The film stresses the solidarity and the ties that unify the community of Michele’s flat beyond their querulous bitching. Yet, especially in its overlong second half, it also presents several situations that reinforce the homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy and help marginalize the potential of political subversion of Michele’s community, reducing them to a colorful bunch who surf the net in search of a shag.
Two narrative choices are particularly relevant for this point. The first one concerns Antonia’s pregnancy. Just when she and Michele seems to be hitting it off and have even had a passionate snog on her beautiful couch, Antonia discovers that she is pregnant. The child is Massimo’s, as Antonia hasn’t had any sexual intercourse since his death. She first decides to buy a bottle of champagne and celebrate with Michele and the others, but once she arrives at his flat she hears them bitching about her and Michele. Without being seen, she leaves withholding the news of her pregnancy. There are several disappointing implications for a queer audience about Antonia’s choice, but those very same implications will no doubt be praised by a conservative spectator. By deciding not to tell that she is pregnant, Antonia is implicitly judging the community of queers as unsuitable to share her news with. It also seems unlikely that she will let the soon to be born child be adopted by Michele’s extended family. And here we may find conservatives nodding with delight: would that be a good context for raising a child? Antonia’s pregnancy also disappointingly signifies the fertility and reproductive potential of a heterosexual relationship as opposed to the supposed sterility of a homosexual one.
The film’s most disappointing choice, however, is the representation and the narrativization of the World Pride 2000 celebration, which took place in Rome just a week before the official starting of the film’s shooting. Ozpetek filmed several scenes at this event with the intention of inserting them into the film’s narrative. And he would have done well: the event was a truly liberating one for all Italian queers. Its success defeated the arrogance of the Vatican and the right-wing Italian parties, enraged by the simultaneity between the event and the Catholic Jubilee, and the timidity of the center-left coalition that was governing the country at the time. World Pride 2000, attended by queers but also by heterosexuals, was an important victory, establishing Rome as the capital city of a secular state rather than the Pope’s property. In spite of Ozpetek’s initial plans, the footage of this event is completely cut off from the film’s narrative: the images of the actual parade appear only after the closing credits and are further marginalized by the director’s choice of mixing them with behind-the-scenes footage. At a certain point of Le Fate Ignoranti we do see Michele and his friends preparing slogans and signs, but we never get to see the demonstration, and the political content of the slogans is reduced to a minimum (“To whom do I give it tonight?” reads one). The film cuts instead to the night party, where, once again in a convenient move to titillate and reassure conservative spectators of their difference from queers, Michele decides to have a threesome, which starts on the beach and ends in his flat; and the couple formed by Riccardo and Luciano turns out not to be so devoted to monogamy as we had at first assumed. The World Pride 2000 celebration is such a peripheral element of Ozpetek’s narrative that its political impact may be safely ignored. One of the people who attended a debate with the director where I was present mistook the Pride for an open-air party and asked if the characters were celebrating anything special…
With Le Fate Ignoranti, Ozpetek has created a successful melodrama that is of interest to more than a mere queer spectatorship. Yet there were enough heterosexuals wheeling around their children in prams at World Pride 2000 for the director to construct his success in a more radical way, without pandering to audiences of ignorant bourgeois.