“Antonia Pozzi was an Italian poet.” That terse description, augmented only by the dates of her birth and death (at age 26), is all the English-language Wikipedia entry has to offer on the tragic literary figure whose life inspired Ferdinando Cito Filomarino’s “Antonia.” Though the helmer’s impressionistic debut celebrates the “plainness” of Pozzi’s poetry and the unique “style that doesn’t feel like style” it exhibited, as biopics go, the project offers few additional clues as to her significance — and therein lies the paradox of this elegantly conceptualized but frustratingly de-contextualized film: One really ought to be familiar with Pozzi’s work in order to appreciate this wispy sketch of the years she spent finding her voice and seeking a supportive audience. Meanwhile, for neophytes, the fashionable but narratively flat pic feels too much like an advert for a line of elegant sweaters, while the model herself remains a mystery.
Chief among “Antonia’s” limitations is the fact that its leading lady, newcomer Linda Caridi, hasn’t yet developed those qualities that draw an audience in. The sweaters, on the other hand, were supplied by Fendi, a fashion label with an established history of capturing the eye and imagination, so it’s no wonder that the dull, plain-faced Caridi (who looks something like a young Holly Hunter, stripped of her unpredictable energy) is so easily upstaged by her wardrobe. Even naked, her instrument fully exposed, the young actress lacks the practice to reveal the character’s inner turmoil.
Odd that Filomarino has chosen to work with such an untried and unengaging cast, considering that his previous short film, a sly Patricia Highsmith-esque mini-thriller called “Diarchia,” benefited from the participation of Louis Garrel, Riccardo Scamarcio and Alba Rohrwacher. That short caught the eye of fellow Italian director Luca Guadagnino, whose idea it was to make a movie about the young poetess, though perhaps the director (distracted with his forthcoming “A Bigger Splash”) should have kept the assignment for himself, instead of delegating it to a less experienced protege.
Granted, Filomarino has stylish ideas, but they violate his own premise of attempting to capture — or at least mirror — the open, unadorned spirit of Pozzi’s poetry. In other words, his style feels very much like style, calling attention to itself even as it falls short of the ravishing visual and sensual effect he so evidently intends. Collaborating with d.p. Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (who also lensed Apitchatpong Weerasethakul’s stunning-to-behold “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” and less impressively, Miguel Gomes’ muddier-looking “Arabian Nights”), Filomarino wants images that make your heart ache, that trigger intense emotional tremors in places we can’t normally access — the way Guadagnino’s “I Am Love” does. But the result, while loving shot on celluloid, feels stiff, flat and too transparently calculated.
Tracing the final decade in Pozzi’s life, the film opens with symbols (namely, Rodin’s muscled bronze nude, “L’Ombre,” a statue whose raw passion seems entirely lacking in Caridi’s character) and attempts to interweave the biographical particulars of the young poet’s life. At age 16, she entertains the affections of a fuddy-duddy literature teacher (Filippo Dini) from her Milan high school, but is humiliated when he comes to request her hand in marriage.
She goes on to study with professor Antonio Banfi (Alberto Burgio), who recognizes her potential but fails to encourage her talent; meets a couple other young poets; and strikes up a romance with well-bred artistic dabbler Dino Formaggio (played by painter Luca Lo Monaco, another stiff), resulting in languorous, nonlinear sex scenes set upon Italian lawns — more visuals better suited to a fashion commercial than the task at hand.
At one point, Antonia tries rock-climbing, though Filomarino hasn’t bothered to write a proper scene, depicting the activity in his usual, genteelly under-dramatized way — the same approach he takes to her writing, a practice that falls somewhere between cat-napping and folding laundry on the scale of decidedly non-cinematic activities. But wait, it gets worse: Convinced that the only way to appreciate Pozzi’s poetry is to read it, Filomarino includes lingering closeups of hand-scrawled pages, allowing Italian speakers the chance to study her words, so many of which seemed to anticipate her death.
This weight of mortality, uncommonly heavy in someone so young, haunts her work (which was published only posthumously), coming across far stronger than whatever sense of romantic yearning Pozzi also bared. As Pozzi wrote, “Today, i curve naked, in the clarity / of the white bath and i’ll curve naked / on a bed tomorrow, if someone / will take me. and one day naked, alone, stretched out under too much earth, / i’ll be, when death has called upon me.” In one striking scene, Antonia lies on her side, a pale, virtually lifeless odalisque, accompanied by a Piero Ciampi song written decades after the film takes place (between 1929 and 1938). In another, a child races by carrying a bottle of milk, followed by a loud crash and the sight of crimson blood mixing with the spilled white fluid.
Sofia Coppola would have known how to breathe life into this intellectual exercise, which lacks the butterfly-fragile heartbeat needed to unlock the tragedy of Pozzi’s premature end. Of course, for some, the film’s delicate touch will more than suffice to convey this ahead-of-her-time energy, and it’s hard to deny the pleasure of experiencing a rarefied side of Milan nearly a century ago, but that’s like complimenting her choice in sweaters, without connecting with the ghost who wears them.