By John Mulderig
NEW YORK (CNS) — Classical statuary forms a recurring visual motif in the coming-of-age drama “Call Me by Your Name” (Sony Classics).
That’s fitting since the film’s primary romantic relationship, which bonds an older male mentor with a precocious, but untried youth, was perfectly acceptable to the pagan sensibilities of the ancient world.
Contemporary moviegoers approaching the story from a biblically based outlook will, of course, have quite a different take.
Set in Northern Italy during the early 1980s, “Call Me by Your Name” chronicles the mutual yearning — disguised, initially, as dislike — shared by Elio (Timothee Chalamet), the 17-year-old son of an archaeology professor (Michael Stuhlbarg), and Oliver (Armie Hammer), the graduate student who comes to lodge with Elio’s family while serving as his father’s temporary assistant.
A hothouse atmosphere, beautiful scenery — and dialogue designed to show how highly cultured all the characters are — set the tone for the proceedings. Amid all this abiding gentility, however, director Luca Guadagnino’s adaptation of Andre Aciman’s novel, written for the screen by James Ivory, veers erratically between discreet sensuality and outright vulgarity.
Thus, when Elio and Oliver finally hit the sack together, after a succession of timid reconnoiterings, the camera, having established what’s about to happen, turns demurely to show us the trees outside their bedroom window. Yet, by contrast, a later scene finds Elio interacting with a piece of fruit in a way Jason Biggs’ character in “American Pie” might find all too familiar.
All the while, the film invites viewers to accept with perfect equanimity Elio’s sexual experimentations, which are varied enough even when they involve human beings rather than produce. Indeed, Elio’s randy ramblings are carried out, nearly simultaneously, both with Oliver and with Elio’s local-bred girlfriend, Marzia (Esther Garrel). As for the hunky houseguest, his tastes are shown to be equally broad in scope.
Totally lacking the emotional impact of 2016’s “Moonlight,” “Call Me by Your Name” is populated by a set of smug smarty-pants whose philosophy of life treats commitment-free flings as so many trips to the moon on gossamer wings, earnestly to be sought and, when found, cherished as sweet memories.
This is all the more surprising, and incongruous, considering that Jewish identity, symbolized by the Star of David that first Oliver and later, by deliberate imitation, Elio wear as well as by the family’s observance of Hanukkah, forms at least a minor theme in the script. Perhaps more Leviticus and less Cole Porter might have kept the central duo on the straight-and-narrow.
The film contains a misguided outlook on human sexuality, strong sexual content, including brief graphic underage activity, aberrant acts, as well as upper female and rear nudity, a mild oath, several rough and at least one crude term. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.