Coincidence found me racing rush-lane hour at this wonderful artsy blockbuster Call Me By Your Name, a film based on the eponymous novel by Egyptian author André Aciman, with the screenplay by James Ivory and director Luca Guadagnino at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Monday night.
A gorgeous film set in a town called B – “Somewhere in Northern Italy” – as the author is reluctant to share the exact coordinates or geopolitics of a place or its time period for us to focus more on his characters and motivations, as we enjoy the purity of their struggles and reward of the storytelling. There is everything to love about this moving, tender tale of adolescence, maturity, friendship, hypocrisy of adulthood and wonderful parenting.
Seventeen-year-old Elio’s boyhood is precious, glorious (with lake-filled swims, friends, peaches, apricots, orchards and the forest and town-square only a bike ride away) even a bit indolent until an older American grad student and house-guest Oliver enters his life. With his conspicuous Star of David necklace, the only Jew in town (aside from all of Elio’s family who almost hide their Jewishness) with his American swagger and penchant for “Later” and laterisms, Oliver takes up residence at Elio’s family’s home assisting Elio’s professor-father for an anthropological project, using Elio’s room for the six weeks of his stay that summer. Elio and Oliver develop a friendship that’s pre-dated by a shared religious identity, but scripts itself into a rare, seamless, adrenaline-filled, label-defying, loving and kind sensibility with a warm camaraderie flowing into and of each other. Intricate emotionally charged scenes of slow conversation, debating the etymology of the apricot, existential angst, confession-avoidance, mild and torrid flirtations, telepathy, adventure bonding, family, friendship, love, sex and intimacy sweep the story, setting the screen ablaze with many a hungry fire.
Aciman is a clever infinite storyteller, observant at even the latest hour, signing hundreds of books and posing for a photo with this last person below in a ceaseless line, exhibiting unending mental stamina and alertness. Humility and charisma notwithstanding, authors have an uncanny knack for mobilizing people around their central dilemmas; Aciman went about his business of building the trajectory of desire with the greatest empathy for its fleeting yet so permanent nature, absorbed with the fixation and never quite healed nor spared from its remedial redemptive imprint. Nothing leaves you in cyclical life, despite every trick in the book (film), there is no closure.
He wrote these characters and scenes from the corners of honesty and his love is set here too, in the heart of his story and in the clay of his characters. Sometimes criticized for isolating his work from the political and socioeconomic contexts or parallel histories of a period (early-mid 80s in this case), he quips, “I hate realism” – for he focuses on telling a universal unique tale about the human condition. The meat and soul of the matter are his troubled characters arching towards their destiny. His compatriot and Nobel-prize winning Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz comes to mind for a similarly distinct style of opulent humanism. Over here, the landscape and the dialog, silences and natural beauty (even when fruit laden orchards are re-created by bandaging peaches onto trees) in every frame make the movie an utter glut for the eye and soul. It is then no surprise that a unanimous majority of the audience was watching the film for a second, third or fourth time and had read Aciman’s novel at least once!
Looks like I’m rooting for two very different but moving films this Oscar season, Call me by your name and Wajib; both films’ storytellers hail from the wide Middle East.