Italy seems to be the perennial peninsula of choice for movie romance, and audiences can be forgiven if they're a little sick from overindulgence on sunsets and thickly accented English. This year's “When in Rome,” “Letters to Juliet,” and even the stolid George Clooney vehicle, “The American,” were stunningly unimaginative in their own ways, while offering landscapes, villas and sex galore that failed to convey anything Italian not found in a hundred brochures.
“I Am Love” is nothing like those movies. You get sex, food and vistas by the ladle-full in Luca Guadagnino's charming visual feast, but the difference is remarkable. The movie is about a brief affair between Emma (Tilda Swinton), a lonely woman who married into a wealthy Italian family, and Antonio (Edoardo Gabbriellini), a gifted chef who happens to be the best friend of Emma's son Edo (Flavio Parenti). Around their heated entanglement drift several other threads of plot, including Emma's other children, her husband and in-laws, and what to do about the family business.
Guadagnino's movie is so energetic it can easily overwhelm your senses — sense of reason included. While the Recchi clan transitions from one generation to the next, you come up against painful questions amid achingly beautiful sequences. Was that really a bird in a cage representing the trapped soul of the heroine? Was that bee making love to a flower really meant to underscore lovemaking?
Swinton is brilliant as usual, and it certainly helps a movie create an otherworldly vibe whenever the principal is gifted with such otherworldly looks. Swinton helped patent the type Emma represents in “I Am Love.” Just look at “Orlando,” rereleased this year and well-worth seeking out, for a similar concoction of stupendous images that eventually dissipate into trite melodrama.
The beats and visual palette in “I Am Love” are fiercely original. Yet the final stages — save for the eloquent coda — are as stupefying as the initial movements are sweeping and hypnotic. But that doesn't mean you can't savor each as Emma does Antonio's belabored dishes. The desire for passion leads to all kinds of silliness. (R) 120 min.