A goldsmith by trade, handsome and in the prime of life, Vittorio (Vitaliano Trevisan) would seem a good catch, and he's obviously interested in meeting a woman and settling down. Like modern singles everywhere, he has placed (or perhaps answered) a personal ad, meeting Sonia (Michela Cescon) for a first date at a train station.
There's something odd about Vittorio, nevertheless. He no sooner introduces himself to Sonia than he expresses dissatisfaction with her-he expected someone slimmer-although Sonia is pretty enough to earn part of her living modeling for art students. We later learn that Vittorio is seeing a psychiatrist who has prescribed medication for compulsive behavior, which isn't helping. Vittorio continues to complain that he cannot find a woman who meets his standards which, we will learn, are exacting.
Primo Amore, the new film by director Matteo Garrone and screenwriter Massimo Gaudioso, is as lovely to watch as it is painful to contemplate. Set in the verdant countryside surrounding Verona, this gothic tale of obsession, sadomasochism and murder unwinds in bright sunshine, like a summer storm that slowly builds from a cloud on the horizon into a black maelstrom. Garrone and Gaudioso collaborated earlier on the equally disturbing The Embalmer, about a malevolent taxidermist who preys upon a naïve young man. The filmmakers again prove their uncanny knack for finding the apt profession for their aberrant protagonist, as Vittorio begins to weigh Sonia's worth, literally, as he would a gold nugget for a brooch.
The couple's fate is sealed when Vittorio buys a home, a kind of simple campanile, and insists Sonia move in with him. Despite this new intimacy, their relationship remains ambiguous. Vittorio proffers affection but continues to be preoccupied with Sonia's size; Sonia struggles to please her new lover, despite her misgivings over his demands. Once inside the stone tower, with its faint suggestion of medieval torture, Vittorio begins to measure Sonia's volume kilogram by kilogram, as a parent would chart a child's growth, only in reverse.
In much the same fashion, Primo Amore records the lovers' devolvement, a bizarre dance of mutual destruction. Vittorio rations Sonia's food, squeezes her into ever-tighter dresses, and mesmerizes her with lectures on self-esteem, arguing that her confidence will grow in proportion to her shrinking body. Sonia takes to binging in secret, hiding from friends and colleagues, sleeping to escape her hunger.
Admittedly, in synopsis, the film sounds dreary, a cautionary tale about bulimia or a feminist rant against patriarchal imperatives, but Garrone and Gaudioso keep the audience focused on the psychology of their characters, not the politics of their situation. As Vittorio fixates on Sonia, he loses interest in his business, which was tenuous at best. His employees abandon him just as Sonia quits her job, forcing Vittorio to sell his equipment and scrape the walls of his warehouse in pursuit of the gold dust that has permeated the plaster. Garrone films the smelting process that renders this detritus into two gold bars, which Vittorio carries home like trophies-an ingenious cinematic trope that brings the narrative to crisis and closure at once.
Trevisan, who had a hand in writing the script, plays Vittorio with the perfect combination of arrogance and impotence. He's creepy but rational, a man who has managed to hide his monomania from all but the object of his desire. Having committed himself, he invests everything in Sonia, leaving himself vulnerable in the process.
Cescon has the more difficult role. Sonia is submissive by nature-she needs to please-yet she must elicit the audience's sympathy for the film to succeed. Her performance relies on small gestures and furtive acts, like her sideways glances at other women at the swimming pool, as she progresses through stages of compliance, abrogation, exhaustion and, finally, defiance.
Primo Amore isn't much of a date flick, but it should do well in art houses. Theatre owners can only hope the movie has a salubrious effect on concession sales.