“The meaning of the river flowing is not that all things are changing so that we cannot encounter them twice, but that some things stay the same only by changing.”- The Cosmic Fragments by Heraclitus
The movie begins with the crayon-like font on beautiful sepia images of ancient Greek sculptures, with enveloping background music in the casting. A sunkissed summer of 1983 revolves around Elio, a 17-year-old bibliophile and musician, somewhere in Northern Italy. His father is a professor of Archaeology and invites a Jewish American student, Oliver, to help him with his academic paper for the summer. The 24-year-old Oliver with his signature ‘later’, seems rude and buoyant to a rather introspective Elio in the beginning. Giving up one’s room and sharing the bathroom isn’t a happy feeling, of course!
The 17th-century villa in the movie is the most understated mansion I have seen. It is sizeable, yet the ancient stone walls and green windows do not threaten, rather merge with nature around. The family and its visitors enjoy meals tastefully spread outdoors, under the trees, relaxing your mind and pleasing your senses right from the beginning. The cycling tours and long walks of Oliver and Elio give a sneak peek into the relaxed city they live in. From the countryside, almost empty streets to clock towers, statues and riversides, you may want to leave everything and travel to the quaint village in Italy.
Although Elio seems to have made an opinion about Oliver, his heart soon warms up and he scribbles his poor judgement as a confession. While he has been observing Oliver and processing his new set of emotions, his parents have been observing him as well. On a rainy evening his beautiful mother reads a romantic snippet from a book that ends with a question, ‘Is it better to speak or to die?‘ While Elio expresses his doubt to ever find the courage to speak, his father gently disagrees, hinting their support in the most subtle fashion.
Elio expresses his feelings indirectly when Oliver compliments his knowledge of history. Oliver asks him not to talk about it again, yet the vibe remains relaxed between the two and Elio has the same, carefree demeanour. What’s interesting is the subtle change you witness in Oliver’s behaviour from neutral to attentive towards Elio thereafter.
The wide angles, long shots and no digital cinematography add the beauty in simplicity I had not seen in quite a while. The sound of the ripples, the chirping of birds and the warmth of the Sun fills your heart with serenity. The simple act of stretching oneself, gazing up at the sky with trees shading over becomes a gesture of acceptance for oneself and another. At that moment, you feel everything is fine, life is beautiful!
Elio dives deeper in the feeling of first love and starts wearing the Judaism star like Oliver. Annella does not only know but also reflects the same to his smitten son. Elio senses a brief distance from the day of confession and writes to Oliver that the silence is killing him. Oliver responds by asking him to meet at midnight, leaving him longing, restlessly waiting and looking at his watch time and again. While they are still in bed after a passionate night, Oliver whispers, ‘Call me by your name and I’ll you by mine.‘ Elio addresses Oliver as Elio and Oliver address Elio as Oliver, drawing you closer to the theory of soulmates. Whether he wants to have Elio or gives him the right to be him, has been left to our interpretation. Leaving somethings to multiple elucidations is one of the finest virtues of art.
Elio’s parents are aware of the bond and ask them to take a trip together before Oliver finally goes back. The tranquil waterfall scene depicts how Oliver takes a pause to soak up the view and realise his last days in Italy, making the best of his limited time while Elio is blissfully unaware of the reality of life. Their departure at the railway station has a long hug but no words, bringing out the deeply affecting maturity of powerful cinema. Elio is clad in a blue shirt gifted by Oliver to remind him of what he had. Imagery has done what words may not have in certain parts of the film.
Another significant attribute of the classic is the background score and three soulful songs of the American singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens- ‘Mystery of Love’, ‘Futile Devices’ and ‘Visions of Gideon’. The soft vocals and tender instruments flow into your mind like a soothing stream, they are unlike anything I have heard before. Not a single day has passed without thinking about the movie or craving to listen to its music since I saw this masterpiece.
A special mention for the remarkable character sketch of Elio’s parents. Despite being Jewish, the confluence of French, Italian and American culture enhances their liberal mind and open heart to reminisce love and friendship with utmost purity. Mr Perlman has a heart to heart with Elio after Oliver has gone forever, he explains, ‘We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything- what a waste!’ To console Elio’s broken heart further he adds, ‘Right now, there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it and with it the joy you’ve felt. ‘ Not surprisingly, Elio’s girlfriend Marzia is a reader too. She introspects, ‘People who read are hiders. They hide who they are. People who hide don’t always like who they are.‘ The statement is suggestive of the whirlpool of identities Elio goes through during the initial phase of attraction towards Oliver while he is still flirting with Marzia.
Luca Guadagnino has created visual poetry in a swooning tale of yearning, desire and separation. Discussions between Oliver and professor about the origin of certain words, the erotic images of old statues and capturing the raw, scraped walls display a beautiful basket of literature, history and architecture. What’s even more relevant is the liberal sexual culture Greece has always been known for. While almost the entire movie has the mellowness of summer, the scenery is cold and snowy towards the end. The three minutes long shot of Timothee sitting in front of the fireplace, with flames blazing in his teary eyes and a rush of emotions parading on his face while his family prepares for Hanukkah dinner in the background, echoes the gut-wrenching question, ‘Is it better to speak or to die’.
When you least expect it, nature has cunning ways of reinstating your belief in the pain and power of first love. The core of the film is not so much about gay romance, but the immersive, sweet pain of first love. As someone who was never a fan of the romance genre in books and films, this spectacular creation with its brilliant, hidden references has placed it as high as the Italian blue sky!