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what the senses know

We spent Saturday in the city, and split up for a few hours while Myron went to the university library and I went to my lovely Bytowne for Io Sono Amore, a compelling movie that had me rapt for two entire hours. I know there are people out there who cannot bear to watch a movie with subtitles. My mother was one! But I don’t mind it, and I wouldn’t have wanted to see this dubbed into English. Besides, Italian sounds beautiful, even if you don’t speak a word of it. Tilda Swinton, who’s fascinated me since I saw Orlando in the early nineties, plays a woman who’s married into a family of Italian industrialists. As the film opens, the camera swoops over Milan—not lush with Tuscan sun and olive groves or picturesque with tiny alleys and Vespas, but urban and frosted over with a layer of snow. Already, you’re miles away from the typical Hollywood image of Italy.

Emma Recchi lives in a tastefully sumptuous Milanese villa, and the first scenes of the film show her attending to every detail of an important dinner party to happen at the villa that night. The camera lingers (sometimes for fetishistic lengths of time) on the trappings of the Recchi family’s wealth, but it’s important to know what Emma is risking when she becomes fascinated with Antonio, a taciturn chef whose food opens her eyes to new passions. Unfortunately, Antonio is also a friend of her son’s.

Now, Emma has the best of everything, and she lives in one of the richest food cultures on the planet. You wouldn’t think that a simple plate of prawns and vegetables would elevate her to the heights of emotion that propel the rest of the story. Because Antonio prepared it, Emma lingers over each bite, not groaning in pleasure but retreating inward, cutting the prawn into pieces to make it last and ignoring the conversation at the table. This is no saccharine pig-out of the kind that you’d find in… um, another Italian-set movie that was popular earlier this summer ;) It wasn’t onanistic. It was a shared pleasure, even though Antonio was in the kitchen and Emma was at the table. 

There’s more to the film than this. It’s not for nothing that Emma (a pseudonym her husband gave her when he brought her to Italy from Russia) also evokes the name of Madame Bovary, another woman who wanted more than her husband could give. The infidelity in this movie didn’t work for me 100%, because I felt that Emma’s husband deserved an honest talk or two instead of an affair behind his back. Sometimes the yearning for more only becomes apparent when More appears in front of you, and you think, “Why not me too?” Once she finds her passion, she cannot concern herself any longer with what anyone else might think—or even whom she hurts. It’s a very European movie, and it’s not for everyone, but I loved it.

We walked to dinner afterward and had an amazing meal at The Black Tomato. While I dawdled over my entree, I tried to savor each bite the way Emma had in the film. First a perfectly cooked forkful of gnocchi, then a sliver of mushroom, then a piece of zucchini, then a slice from the stuffed chicken breast. Rich tomato and red pepper permeated the entire bowl. An occasional sip of St-Ambroise pumpkin ale. I was surprised to find myself full halfway through, simply because I had taken my time and let each morsel transport me. Sunday morning, the rest of the chicken and gnocchi were waiting for me in the fridge, and although Myron probably thought he had the better breakfast, I know I disagree.

One of Heather’s earlier blogs was called “About the Senses.” From way back then, I knew we had much in common. Although I’m a very introverted person and spend most of my time charting my own head, I have a fascination with the ways we interpret the world through our senses, the ways we aren’t so different from a dog that sniffs its way through its days or a cat whose ears are always attuned for any sign that its nap might be cut short. They’re in tune with their surroundings and the world. It’s good for the soul to tap into my animal nature when I can, to let my senses tell me a story of their own.