Netflix’s latest gay drama is a mediocre romance that is less than the sum of its parts. That is not to say that it is without any merits. It works as a lazy Sunday ‘tucked-in-your-winter-blanket’ watch if you want a lush, sexy, and wistful romantic movie trip.
Nuovo Olimpo feels like, and indeed is, an assortment of disparate soap opera tropes that feel wholly unoriginal yet comfortingly familiar. Think Carol-meets-Cinema Paradiso-meets-All That Heaven Allows-meets-The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. Director Ferzan Özpetek and co-writer Gianni Romoli are clearly in thrall of these iconic melodramas and queer classics. Their self-awareness ends up as a spot-the-cinematic-reference distraction that takes away from an otherwise sweet, sappy love story dripping in nostalgia.
The film kicks off in 1978 with two closeted gay students, Eneo and Pietro, who meet, fall in love, and are separated by forces beyond their control. Their encounter is torrid, urgent, and furiously passionate. They first see each other on a film shoot. Later, they meet again at the eponymous movie theatre. Their brief affair becomes calcified as a lingering romantic ghost.
The film takes us through the next four decades of Eneo and Pietro’s lives as they grow older, find partners, build careers, and move on. Yet, the ghosts of this affair continue to haunt them. They can’t let go of their fading memories of each other. Each makes scattered efforts to reach out to the other over the years. In the end, they meet, but their love story and the film have run out of steam by then.
The queerness in their eyes
The strength and heart of Nuovo Olimpo lies in the electrifying chemistry between its two gorgeous leads, played by Damiano Gavino and Andrea Di Luigi, who find new ways to play up romantic cliches in their swoony gazes. Director Ferzan Özpetek doesn’t shy away from objectifying the two beautiful men. This self-aware queer gaze feels less exploitative. We, the audience, understand the attraction between Eneo and Pietro and feel their sexual energy.
The movie uses the ‘love-at-first-sight’ romantic device to establish the attraction between Eneo and Pietro. It, then, continues to use the act of ‘seeing’ as a leitmotif. It becomes a lazy narrative tool to compensate for a lack of context, dialogue, or storytelling. This is where the pearly brooding eyes of Di Luigi and the shimmering sheepish look in Gavino’s eyes do much of the heavy lifting.
Like Todd Haynes’ Carol, Nuovo Olimpo instrumentalizes the queer gaze. Simulating the oppressive environment of 1970s Italy, this deliberate obsession with the faculty of sight allows the audience to feel the hungry attraction between Eneo and Pietro “as each character gazes into the camera.” Their love starts with and resides in the eyes. The overwhelming queerness in their glance conveys repression, resentment, longing, lust, and love.
It is a film with a very queer eye!
Melodrama and cinema, Italian style
Like the vintage cinema hall where Eneo and Pietro first meet, the film feels like a retrospective of classic Italian neo-realist melodramas. The star-crossed lovers in Nuovo Olimpo bond over their love for Anna Magnani’s film, Nella città l’inferno (…and the Wild Wild Women, 1959). Magnani was a volcanic on-screen persona and an early queer icon. Nuovo Olimpo tries to mimic the aesthetics of the classic working-class melodrama of Magnani by being deliberately histrionic, while projecting realism and authenticity.
Larger-than-life classic soap opera plot devices are used throughout the film. From coincidences to chance glances in trains to a blind patient and his lover, the doctor, every element is familiar. Nuovo Olimpo combines these into a single, slightly garbled story. The marriage of naturalism and melodrama, achieved through period-perfect costumes and production design, is uneven and a disservice to the love story it tells.
The film is too short, and the time jumps are too abrupt for us to stay with our characters. It wants us to feel the achingly passionate love between Eneo and Pietro but refuses to show us more about their lives. Their lives are reduced to uni-dimensional bytes of nostalgia, popping up through cliched plot pieces like the Anna Magnani film.
It is this sense of nostalgia that rescues the film, conveying the distinct ineffability of queer desire epitomised by a cruising culture that is now almost extinct.
Cruising for gay nostalgia
The past forty years have been revolutionary for queer people, queer culture and its representation in cinema. Cinema and cinema halls have changed. Seedy bylanes, dusk-lit public parks, and smoky single-screen theatres are increasingly disfavoured as sites of gay cruising. Indeed, cruising as an element of queer culture has itself changed irrevocably. But, in the pre-smartphone days, these were the crevices where gay culture thrived. It was in these places that one found love, sex, comfort, erotic thrills, and more.
Nuovo Olimpo is a movie theatre and cruising ground representing much more than mere sentimentality. It reminds us of the tactility of queer experience. The sight, smell, touch, and taste of cruising in the 1970s. It feels like a lament. A plea to reflect on our current cruising culture, which is digitised and compartmentalised on dating apps. It is soaked in nostalgia for a time, people, and a world long-gone – indeed, it feels like a documentation of a ‘time and space’ and cinema that has gone away.
Saccharine in both form and content, Nuovo Olimpo works best when it focuses on the two leads who radiate chemistry and make us feel a lot more than the film otherwise allows. While the film is more soapy than operatic, its swoony leads, rich details, and empathetic use of gay melodrama tropes make for a generally satisfying cinema.