“I feel like there’s a sort of mouth over the city, ready to eat us up,” says Enea, sophisticated young nightclubber, tennis champion and coke dealer; if anyone is trying to swallow the Eternal City whole, it’s Enea himself. The son of intellectuals – his mother hosts a television chat show about literature; his father is a psychoanalyst – the inexhaustible Enea scoots and toots between the city’s most exclusive sports club, the city’s most exclusive parties and, even more thrillingly, rendezvous with the criminal classes, homespun proletarians to a man. “You need to marry Eva, have a child with her, make her happy. If you have no one to kiss, you go crazy,” advises Giordano (Adamo Dionisi), pusher and family man, when he learns that playboy Enea has acquired a girlfriend. Whatever. In his line of work and with the company he keeps, Giordano isn’t going to last that long.
In his second outing as writer and director, now showing in competition at the Venice Film Festival, Italian actor Pietro Castellitto throws everything in the director’s toybox at the screen. He also plays the central character, portraying him as a charismatic rogue; Giorgio Quarzo Guarascio plays his childhood friend, partner in crime and soulmate Valentino, who has recently and very usefully acquired his pilot’s license. Valentino sees Enea’s father as a patient. Rome looks like a concentration camp from above, he tells him during their weekly session. “Does flying make you feel free?” asks Celeste (Sergio Castellitto, Pietro’s father), a benevolent presence among the madness. “No!” replies Valentino emphatically. “If you fall, you all die!” For him, that risk is the real attraction.
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Like his characters, Castellitto the writer-director revels in excess, albeit an excess that is elaborately aestheticized. Cinematographer Radek Ladczuk, previously known for the Gothic horror of The Babadook, has a field day; as Enea himself might say, everything is permitted. Some scenes are shot looking down at people’s heads from the ceiling; some are shown in the reflections on tables, water or mirrors; a red wash of light across a nightclub scene cuts to a pale morning fog, as if the film were a showroom of possible atmospheres; there are crashes and explosions and a falling tree that narrowly misses killing Enea’s mother, who is doing yoga in her conservatory when the glass roof is smashed. Soon we see the same rogue tree whisked sky-high by a crane, the clouds scudding overhead in another dizzying shot of the world seen upside down.
Even the candlelight seems frenzied as Enea debates over dinner with his mother and Valentino as to whether it is better to live alone and free or to be part of a clan. As a decadent bourgeois, he is not so keen on family as Giordano. A clan has a shared purpose; it is a band of brothers. In his own mind, Enea is a warrior hero. “Power makes people fat and stupid,” he tells Oresti (Giorgio Montanini), a celebrated biographer who is also one of the drug scene’s power players. “Strength requires integrity.” Enea is keeping a lot of dodgy balls in the air, but he still has time for quasi-Nietzschean philosophizing. Valentino prefers to sing; he even serenades the patients at the psychiatric hospital where his mother is being treated for depression, wearing a Christmas outfit of velvet train and furred crown, with a song of his own devising about the joys of cocaine. His mother watches unmoved as her son is chased from the premises.
Overstuffed, over-written and over-constructed as it is, Enea is never dull. Luca Guadagnino has a producer’s credit; it is not hard to draw a line between this film and the voluptuous exuberance of Call Me By Your Name, even if the party scenes seem closer to the world evoked by Paolo Sorrentino’s films with Tony Servillo. But while the characters vie to make their points – that we should read, that we are now drowning in books, that the worst possible fate is to die inside years before you’re actually old – it doesn’t leave a sense of having itself made a point about anything. A blast of sound, fury and meticulously considered framing, Enea isn’t a lasting high.
Festival: Venice (Competition)
Director-screenwriter: Pietro Castellitto
Cast: Pietro Castellitto, Giorgio Quarzo Guarascio, Benedetta Porcaroli, Chiara Noschese, Giorgio Montanini, Adamo Dionisi, Matteo Branciamore, Cesare Castellitto, Sergio Castellitto
Running time: 1 hr 57 min
Sales agent: Vision Distribution
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