Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What Italians and Colin Firth taught me about love

"Grief is the price we pay for love." -- Queen Elizabeth II

Once upon a time, I fell hard for an Italian guy.

Anyone who's been there (to Italy), done that (fallen for a sharp-dressed Italian man), or seen Summertime (the 1955 film for which Katharine Hepburn was nominated for an Oscar) or The Rose Tattoo (the film for which Anna Magnani won an Oscar the same year) knows that tears were involved. A lot of them.

Actually, Paolo never did anything to make me cry. He was and is a fantastic person. It was something he said. We met at B Bar in New York City in the summer of 2000, and months later, when I was visiting him in Milan, we had a deep conversation about life, love and pain. It was the night before I was to return to Rome before heading home. Paolo told me that in his mind, love equalled pain, and he wasn't sure that he wanted it in his life because he didn't believe it could last till the end of time.

I was sure he'd heard that old cliché about how it's better to have loved and lost, so I didn't go there. And at the time, I had yet to figure out that one should live for the moment, not for forever. I didn't even let the romantic in me try to convince him that miracles happen or that sometimes love is worth fighting -- and hurting -- for. I just listened and felt my heart sinking a little. I knew that distance wasn't going to be the only thing that kept us apart.

I cried for about a week when I returned to New York. Paolo and I kept in touch for a while, but in the pre-Facebook era, eventually, we lost track of each other. Then a few years ago, thanks to the power of Facebook, we reconnected. The day we became Facebook friends, he told me that he was coming to Buenos Aires to visit a friend who had moved there, and he wanted to see me.

I wondered if those old feelings would resurface. I was older and wiser, and though I was no longer naive enough to believe that love conquers all, I was still the same hopeless but hopeful romantic I'd been years before. We made a Friday-night dinner date, and when I opened the door and saw him standing there, my heart didn't skip a beat. I didn't feel anything stronger than hunger pangs. I was relieved, because eventually, we got to talking about life, love and pain again, and he hadn't upgraded his gloom and doom outlook. If anything, the years had made him more resolute in his will to live without the emotional burden of love.

Paolo always reminded me a little bit of Julie, the character Juliette Binoche played in my all-time favorite film, Trois Couleurs: Bleu. At the beginning of the movie, Julie loses her husband and daughter in a car accident, and she spends the rest of the film pulling away from life and love because those things, as she then sees them, are traps. Pain always hitches a ride on their coattails. After lots of soul searching, unexpected encounters and powerful classical music, she realizes that life without love isn't much of a life at all. Pain is the price you pay for love, and sometimes it's worth it.

This past weekend, I saw A Single Man, the 2009 film for which Colin Firth probably should have won his Oscar, for the first time -- don't ask what took me so long to get around to screening it because I don't have a decent answer -- and George Falconer reminded me a lot of Julie. (What luck Firth has with Georges -- first Falconer in A Single Man, then George VI in The King's Speech.) When his lover of 16 years dies in an auto accident, he doesn't react in quite the same way, but the intended end result is more or less the same.

There's so much to love about the film. Visually, it's stunning. Fashion designer-turned-director Tom Ford did a fantastic job recreating the 1960s in the stylized Mad Men image that those of us who aren't old enough to have lived through the decade imagine it to have looked, and Julianne Moore, whom I haven't loved in a very long time, reminded me why I fell for her so hard in the early '90s (pre-Boogie Nights, somewhere between The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Safe).

But despite all of the beautiful images surrounding him, I couldn't take my eyes off Colin Firth, not even in the scene where he took a cigarette break from his solitary bereavement with one of the hottest guys I've ever seen. His pain and devastation were so palpable throughout the film that I felt like I could almost reach into the TV screen and touch them.

Though I've never lost a lover in such a tragic way, he made me understand and feel everything Falconer was going through. The scenes in bed with the gun reminded me of Emma Thompson at the end of Carrington. I can't even begin to fathom being willing to die for love (I've never even really suffered a broken heart), but expert actors like Firth, Thompson and Binoche (who never contemplated pulling the trigger in Bleu but might as well have since her retreat from life was like a slow suicide) help me understand why someone might go to that point of no return.

I don't know what Colin Firth's views are on life, love and pain, but in A Single Man, he sold the doom and gloom outlook of George Falconer without the benefit of a moving stutter-free speech backed by Beethoven's 7th Symphony. Interestingly, he's been married to an Italian (film producer Livia GiuggiolI) since 1997. Presumably, happily so, and hopefully, without any of the romantic angst I've come to associate with all Italians, thanks to Summertime, Anna Magnani and Paolo.

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