Alternative gender identity is a hot topic in contemporary cinema, surrounding interest in which could secure a larger audience than might otherwise be expected for Italian filmmaker Carlo Lavagna’s dreamy, heat-hazed character study “Arianna.” By framing its eponymous heroine’s condition as a puzzle to be unpicked rather than a subject for candid discussion, however, the pic resists presentation as an “issue movie” — perhaps to its credit as well as its disadvantage. In telling the story of a 19-year-old girl’s belated coming of age over the course of one idyllic summer, Lavagna dramatizes her plight with a mixture of oblique sensual saturation and, later on, more on-the-nose emoting. An uneven but strikingly presented debut for its helmer, it will find a particularly welcoming niche in gender-themed and LGBTQ fest programs.
“I was born three times,” admits the title character (Ondina Quadri, an arrestingly pale-eyed, tousle-haired newcomer) in voiceover at the outset of the film. “As a boy the first time, and a few years later as a little girl.” She goes on to explain that she was “born” once more nearly two decades later, and it’s this second figurative rebirth — one of heightened self-knowledge, it is suggested — that forms the spine of Lavagna’s initially elusive narrative. This may seem a cryptic opening gambit, though in fact, it’s a fairly prosaic preemptive explanation of a truth that Arianna spends the bulk of the film figuring out. Some viewers may deduce Arianna’s personal history straight away; it’s not clear whether Lavagna intends for the audience to have more knowledge than his protagonist, though her arc of discovery is affecting either way.
Now a woman, though not yet wholly independent of her highly protective parents (Massimo Popolizio and Valentina Carnelutti), Arianna has a healthy social and academic life, though is plagued by one particular medical peculiarity: She has yet to experience her first period. Achingly conscious of the differences between her and other women her age, she spends a considerable amount of time before the mirror, scrutinizing her boyish frame and petite breasts. Her sexual development, too, is very much at the beginner stage, though a summertime encounter with fellow teen Martino (Eduardo Valdarnini) triggers an unprecedented flush of carnal desire in her. Lavagna’s script, co-written with Carlo Salsa and Chiara Barzini, is pleasingly frank about the intuitive randiness of unformed sexual beings of any sex; in its sensitive depiction of a teenager getting more deeply acquainted with her own body, “Arianna” would pair up well on a screening bill with the otherwise dissimilar U.S. pic “The Diary of a Teenage Girl.”
For her summer vacation, Arianna travels with her parents to the family’s long-abandoned holiday villa on the blissfully unspoiled edge of Lake Bolsena. It’s a place she hasn’t visited since early childhood, and thus rife with stray sense memories — evoked by Lavagna in a woozily fragmented style, with accomplished d.p. Helene Louvart (a standout contributor to Alice Rohrwacher’s 2014 Cannes mood piece “The Wonders”) amplifying already ripe seasonal shades into dazzling jewel tones.
When her parents pack up for the city, Arianna asks permission to stay behind and study until the summer’s end. It’s not quite the lie it seems. Though some harmless shenanigans with friends are also on the agenda, she takes advantage of this rare lack of parental influence — even her gynaecologist, we learn, is a family friend — to conduct more thorough research into her medical history. It’s a trail that leads her through a bewildering assortment of doctors, longtime acquaintances and sympathetic support groups, with an outcome that calls the effectiveness of her parents’ well-meaning concern trickily into question. As the film progresses, Arianna’s articulation of her psychological state can be a little pat, verging on the kind of therapy-speak that is, in fairness, not entirely improbable considering her youth and vulnerable uncertainty of self. But the catharsis of simultaneous relief and fury that accompanies her realization lends the film a worthy emotional climax.
As Arianna, Quadri is a compelling performer, if not quite a comfortable one: There are moments where the character’s tenseness may well be inextricable from that of the actress, though her subsequent blossoming seems equally organic to the performance. Lavagna, who has a few nonfiction credits on his resume, has stated that he originally envisioned the project as a documentary, and his facility with his non-pro lead bespeaks a tender interest in first-hand human observation. Still, “Arianna’s” occasional surges of stylized technique — enabled by first-rate work from Louvart, editor Lizabeth Gelber and composer Emanuele de Raymondi — confirm that narrative filmmaking was a viable way to go.