Budding filmmaker Enea and medical student Pietro see each other for the first time at a film set in Rome. The year is 1978. Not a word is spoken between the two of them, but their eyes meet. Butterflies start to fly inside their stomachs. Enea is obviously working there, and Pietro is just passing by. Soon, they meet in Nuovo Olimpo, a movie theater that only plays black-and-white classic films from the old days. The theater also happens to be a safe place for gay men to have quick rendezvous. Titti, the matronly woman who sits at the ticket counter, is progressive enough to aid all these men in their exploration and, at times, give them necessary guidance. Enea and Pietro don’t take much time to hit it off. Pietro is initially nervous, as he has never been with a man before. Enea is rather flamboyant and confident, is smitten by Pietro, and does everything to make his man feel comfortable. Love just happens between the two young men, as it was always inevitable. It’s that kind of love about which you read in novels—intense, passionate, and pure. Thanks to Enea’s friend (and also a former lover) Alice’s sprawling apartment, the lovebirds find a nest for themselves. The world is a place full of misery and chaos, but Enea and Pietro are happy in their own little world. Unfortunately, the happiness turns out to be short-lived. A riot breaks out, and thanks to a really tragic set of events, Enea and Pietro are separated from each other. And then they don’t see each other for almost three decades.
Ferzan Ozpetek’s latest film, fittingly titled after the theater where Enea and Pietro meet, is about both the love and longing of the two star-crossed lovers. It’s a trip down memory lane for the Turkish-born Italian director, who has brought a lot from his own personal experience into it, thus making it a very special film. Ozpetek is a known name in the queer cinema circuit for his contribution to this sub-genre. Thanks to Netflix backing Nuovo Olimpo, it obviously becomes the most accessible film by the director for a wider audience. Sadly, though, the end result is not quite satisfying.
The thing here is that I can’t really call Nuovo Olimpo a bad film. Every frame of it is breathtakingly gorgeous; the two leads have crackling chemistry between them; the acting is solid; and it is evident that Ozpetek has put a lot of effort into making it. In fact, not only did I love the way the director showed the city of Rome of that era, but I also had this strong urge to transport myself back in time and somehow end up there. Yet, Nuovo Olimpo sort of appears to be like a dish that doesn’t have any kick. Or a finely prepared drink that lacks punch. If I have to be totally honest, I would actually use words like “boring” or “uninteresting” to describe this movie, as much as I support Ozpetek and everyone who is trying to put stories from their own lives on the silver screen. I actually find it to be a fascinating thing. Although the director has never claimed Nuovo Olimpo to be an unofficial biopic, we can conclude that this is clearly a very personal story for the man.
What I thought was really odd was how the film decided to show us the lives of both Enea and Pietro after they got away from each other. Yes, I get that. To justify a story like this, neither of them can possibly have compatible partners. But that doesn’t mean the characters of Antonio, aka Enea’s partner, and Giulia, aka Pietro’s partner, have to be underdeveloped. Although Antonio comes off as quite unpleasant initially, he does mean well, and so does Guilia, but they fail to make any impact as characters. This effectively robs the movie of its chance to be something that is emotionally impactful. Going a little off track here, Celine Song’s “Past Lives,” a film that came out this very year, also had two star-crossed lovers who don’t meet for two decades (until they finally do), but the character of one of their spouses was so well-written that it took that film to a whole different level. However, Nuovo Olimpo does find its footing by the end, when Enea and Pietro find each other after so long. The ending is not what you would usually expect, but it seems fitting enough for the narrative. I always like when a film leaves me with some sort of question or lingering thought. Nuovo Olimpo does succeed in that department, I must say.
Film criticism is a tricky thing at times. It is fair enough that we have to justify why we are calling a certain film “good” or “bad,” but when the film comes with a novel story or a strong message, giving a negative review often puts us under the microscope. While I acknowledge what Ozpetek has done for queer cinema and consider myself a fan of any kind of romance, be it queer or straight, Nuovo Olimpo fails to work for me. And I am saying that both from the technical perspective of a reviewer as well as how I felt as an audience member after watching the film. However, at the end of the day, a review itself is nothing but a personal opinion and should never become an authoritative statement for anybody. At best, it can act as a catalyst in your decision to watch it or not. Art is a subjective thing anyway, especially for a movie like Nuovo Olimpo, I actually see a lot of people hearting it and not agreeing with me. And that is perfectly alright. My job is to do an analysis, which kind of goes hand in hand with me expressing my feelings about a movie. Nuovo Olimpo didn’t make me feel anything, even though that was the whole point. But if you give it a try, I really hope it turns out differently for you.