Just as in "Miracle in Milan" the Milan Cathedral takes a bow in "I Am Love"

On the surface I AM LOVE / IO SONO L’AMORE, available on DVD in October, is a love story and a rather melodramatic one. The Russian immigrant wife of a wealthy Milanese fabric factory owner falls in love with her twenty-something son’s best friend, who is a chef and, of course, not of the same class. It’s a beautiful film to look at and rather dense: layered with political references and salutes to past movies and filmmakers, food, literature, and history.

On the light side, if you ever had the intention to pass as an Italian aristocrat and weren’t born into it, this film is a two-hour crash course on manners, mannerisms, and bella figura. Pay attention to the son’s girlfriend, Iva (who pays homage to Claudia Cardinale’s character inThe Leopard both in her looks and circumstance). Be sure not to dress like her.  Iva wears a flimsy short flowered dress and carries a striped handbag. On the other hand, the absolutely gorgeous nonna, (Marisa Berenson, real-life granddaughter of the man who ransacked Italy’s art treasures) is one to emulate. Impeccably groomed and savvy, the nonna never cracks the surface of her unwrinkled sixty-five-year old face with an unstudied smile.

As might be expected in anything Italian, food is a signifier. Here food rises to a full zenith, playing itself as a character. We’re not talking pasta. There’s chocolate cake as menacing as the Trojan Horse, a see-through broth that drops like liquid diamond, essences squeezed from mountain herbs, prawns slicked with red pepper butter that foreshadow the son’s fate, and a tell-all dish made from European river fish.Taken to the lips on silver forks, food awakens the mother and kills the son; revitalizes the proletariat and destroys the aristocrat; dissolves the urban and restores the rural. In the end, the gloriousness of food reigns supreme because it provides hope, electrifies love, and opens doors.

On a sensual level, I AM LOVE tenderly opens doors to the heart and windows of the soul (a literal and visual bow to Ingmar Bergman). The mother, Emma, is a beautiful but rather useless trophy wife whose grown children no longer depend on her. Her husband snaps bracelets on her wrists as if she were a doll–or his prisoner. Emma exemplifies the ideal of unconditional love. When she decides to pursue Antonio, the young chef, her hunger for the life and passion that colored her existence in the once-communist Russia is revealed.

From the opening credits, I AM LOVE harkens back to the neo-realist movies of the 60s that examine the conflicts of industrialization and the individual. The images and themes salute filmmakers Vittorio De Sica, Michelangelo Anontioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Luchino Visconti, David Sirk, Alfred Hitchcock;  the painter Botticelli; the novel Madame Bovary, and on and on…..

As a vehicle to test cinema and cultural IQs, I AM LOVE will surely challenge every film buff.

I AM LOVE, directed by Luca Guadagnino, starring Tilda Swindon, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Alba Rohrwacher, Diane Fleri, Marisa Berenson