For romantics everywhere, for fans of Puccini and full-blown emotion Italian-style, Michele Placido’s “A Journey Called Love” will hit the spot. For viewers seeking new or subtle filmmaking, this is not the right address. The tormented love affair which unfolded from 1916 to 1918 between two famous Italian writers, Dino Campana and Sibilla Aleramo, should click with local auds who read them at school, with a shower of acting and tech prizes easily foreseeable when awards time rolls around. But in truth, the lushly photographed, overly orchestrated and feverishly acted tale, featuring a beautiful Laura Morante in the central role, lacks the dramatic rhythm and social context of a “Doctor Zhivago” or “Gone With the Wind.” Beyond Italian screens, pic will need to be marketed as emotional Italo eye candy, though the subject may also be of interest to women’s film fests.
Film gets off to a confused start, jumping backward and forward in time. In 1916, Aleramo (Morante), referred to at the time as a firebrand feminist, was also a passionate if emotionally unstable lover who made many conquests among the literary and intellectual figures of her day. A tomboyish girl (Katy Louise Saunders) dressed in boys’ clothes, she worked in a factory office for her father (Andrea Coppola) until she was seduced by another employee and forced to marry him, pregnant, at 16. Like her fragile mother (Consuelo Ciatti), she attempted suicide, but survived to condemn marriage as a repressive institution. She bravely left her violent husband, who prevented her from seeing her son ever again. Moving to Milan, Rome, then Florence, she wrote books, poetry and her famous autobiography, “A Woman.”
All this material is stuffed in as backstory to the main drama, which begins with voiceovers reading 40-year-old Sibilla’s admiring letters to the poet Dino Campana, nine years her junior. His arch replies lead to a rendezvous in the countryside. Dino’s (Stefano Accorsi) wild eyes and jerky movements don’t frighten Sibilla, forewarned more than the audience about his reputed craziness. He takes her up the mountain and, gloating over nature like Walt Whitman, doffs his clothes. Without further ceremony they become lovers.
Back in Florence, the excited Sibilla dumps the man she’s living with and seeks shelter with her best friend Leonetta (Galatea Ranzi) and husband Emilio (Diego Ribon), who is soon to march off to World War I. Rather amazingly for a woman writer of known socialist and humanitarian aspirations, she ignores the war completely to focus on her new passion. But her affair with Dino soon turns ugly.
To get him away from his oppressive family and the heckling villagers, she rents a house on the beach where they recite poetry to each other and have great sex. But increasingly wired and unstable, Dino is the victim of unpredictable mood swings; one night, excited by a violent windstorm, he hits her. They split up for a while but are drawn back into a punishing, masochistic relationship.
Though she comes across as a gutsy proto-feminist in breaking the taboos of the day, Morante’s high-key portrayal of Aleramo is most passionately convincing in depicting the female side of a hopeless love affair in all its self-centered misery. Her mature beauty makes the affair with a younger man totally plausible. Accorsi, the talented young thesp of contemporary films like “Santa Maradona” and “The Last Kiss,” seems less sure of himself as the mad poet Campana ranting against the “stinking sewers of Italian literature”; he is quite good, though, in moments of tenderness.
On his fifth directing stint, Placido, an actor himself, again shows an instinct for storytelling on a large scale, a style that foregrounds actors and strong emotions without worrying enough about dramatic buildup and modulation. Tech work follows the same line, from Luca Bigazzi’s sensually enveloping cinematography to Giuseppe Pirrotta’s sets and Elena Mannini’s period costumes. Carlo Crivelli’s sweeping, orchestrated score is used far too much.