Ages of Love: The Overwhelming Question

From earliest times the drama of Rome has been about lovers caught at it, and the big lies that underpin respectability in the upper-middle classes. Giovanni Veronese’s fine three-parter Ages of Love, the third of his praised series A Manual of Love, carries on this tradition, in the age of skypes  and texts and phone-cameras and an ever more godlike, watching technology.

In Youth a young lawyer is diverted by a dangerous woman into bed-games that endanger his career. In Adulthood a fifty-nineish news presenter is diverted by a dangerous woman into bed-games that endanger his career. In Old Age a sixty-nineish one-time archeology professor is diverted by a fugitive pole dancer into bed-games that endanger his heart transplant and appal his friend, the girl’s father, who catches them at it. In each, the man is given a humiliating task. In each but the last, the first fine careless rapture of new love unveiled and embellished proves a sour illusion.

But this is to understate the vast grace of this tender, funny, lingering, sad, impelling essay into love’s waywardness and suddenness and occasional wistful toxicity. Adultery is a given, of course, this is Italy, but so too is male guilt over upsurging, tyrannous lust. Each man struggles with obligations beyond the joy of the moment. The women have no such trouble. They of course are the sexier sex. They are the ones, we are told, who make more noise in bed. It is an almost Islamic view of woman, the untameable tempter. There may be something in it.

There are distinct further elements in each episode. In Youth it is a provincial town of bored and mischievous drunkards all in love with the same brazen teasing beauty, a town where ‘no-one has to be better than anyone else,’ and lifelong friendships are easily made, but are also based, like love, on truths hidden, tricks played (one a young half-wit’s apparent suicide) and Cupid’s pagan interference. (Cupid is an elfin young taxi driver with a big impressive modern steel bow and arrow with springs and gears upon it and unerring aim. He is Puck and Pan at once, beyond morality, taunting and smiling, more trouble than he is worth.)

In Adulthood it is a ripped-off wig and a female stalker long known to the police. In Old Age it is an unseen barren ex-wife who kept his love till his heart transplant after which love died. In a remarkable moment De Niro, the professor, is being taught by Belluci how to strip-tease and modestly, coyly holds up his hands above his transplant scar.

In A Lesson In Love Ingmar Bergman’s narrator says this comedy, like many, started out to be a tragedy but the gods were kind. In this film one suspects there lurks a darker thought, that romantic comedy is only the tip of the iceberg whose underwater enormity is female madness. The predatory Eve and the serpent and the apple are never far from Veronese’s meditations.

The famed face-pulling Italian comedian Carlo Verdone in Adulthood puts one in mind of Bob Hope. The famed face-pulling American actor Robert De Niro puts one in mind of Travis Bickle grown old and mild. The abashed young green eyed superstar Riccardo Scarmarcio very much of Tony Curtis.

But the women could be nothing else than what they are, Italians of great buxom knowing beauty in whom strength and femininity mesh without strain or contradiction. Who get the joke, of the cleavage and the swaying walk, and who know the ultimate question is always Pregnancy Or Else, and each choice, each answer to this question is always the wrong one. Laura Chiatti, Valeria Solarino and Donatella Finocciaro are superb, Monica Belluci a good bit more than that (she seems to bring her own inner light and cheesecloth with her), and the whole thing a marvel of cultural pride which the Italian Tourism Board, in these troubled, bankrupting post-Berlusconi times, should have put more money in.

Never has there been a better advertisement for a vivacious and sensuous and potent way of life, an eternal city, pink enduring sunsets and fireworks above the Colleseum at midnight. A film to take your woman to, and stay up naked and pleasured long after, talking things through.