At a Closer Look Nobody is Normal

Like Crazy, (Paolo Virzi, Italy, 2016)

Reviewed by Franco Ferrarini, Gastroenterologist and Film Reviewer

Beatrice (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and Donatella (Micaela Ramazzotti) live in a Mental Care Health Home. The former is an upper class mythomaniac, a compulsive liar with fantastical stories, whilst the latter comes from a lower socio-economic class and suffers from severe depression. These two women, so radically different from each other, strike up a friendly relationship and decide to embark on a road trip in search of freedom and happiness.  The road journey reminds us of Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise (1991) where another two women escape the oppression of abusive men. Whereas Thelma and Louise willfully sacrifice their lives in pursuit of freedom, Beatrice and Donatella, after facing the hostile environment of the outside world, decide to go back to the safe haven of a Mental Care Home.

A key statement to interpreting Virzì’s film is a sentence handwritten on a wall in the health care facility “At a closer look nobody is normal” (translated from the Italian “Da vicino nessuno è normale”). The original author of this statement is not known: some ascribe it to Oscar Wilde, others to the Brazilian songwriter Caetano Veloso and others to the Italian psychiatrist Franco Basaglia, advocate of the closure of psychiatric asylums which took place in Italy 40 years ago. Paolo Virzì develops this concept to emphasize how difficult, or even impossible, it can be to draw a line between normal and abnormal when a mental state is questioned. The line between the two states is a blurred one; maybe some of the so-called “crazy” patients are sensitive people, overwhelmed by life events. In fact, in both Donatella‘s and Beatrice’s past we come to know of circumstances which destabilized them mentally: both fell in love with men who mistreated them, and both had traumatic relations with their parents. Should they be allowed to live a normal life outside an institution? This is a very delicate question, because some mentally deranged people may exhibit dangerous behaviour.

In Virzì’s film the Mental Care Health Home is completely different from an asylum: doctors and nurses treat their patients in a humane, almost affectionate, manner. Still the inpatients are locked in and deprived of their civil liberties. Beatrice’s and Donatella’s situation raises a difficult question: are they locked up because they are potentially dangerous to themselves and others or because none of their relatives wants to take care of them? Donatella has been abandoned by her lover and rejected by her father, and Beatrice has been ostracized by her family who strongly oppose her relation with a crook. In the world of film, mental hospitals have commonly been portrayed as concentration camps for dangerous residents who threaten the establishment when no one wants to care for them; Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and James Mangold’s Girl, Interrupted (1999) are notable examples.

Like Crazy is also noteworthy for its emotional and metaphorical content: think about the initial shot, where Donatella is contemplating suicide and killing her newborn baby, while at the end we see her happily playing in the sea with her grown-up child, under discreet control of his foster parents. The duality of water as a means of destruction, as in the Great Flood, and the origin of life is cleverly contrasted. In these scenes, Virzì experiments with the “Kulešov effect”, a cognitive phenomenon named after the Soviet film-maker Lev Vladimirovič Kulešov who argued in the 1920s that the interpretation of a given shot could be dramatically influenced by previous or ensuing shots, underlining the paramount role played by editing.

Another intriguing use of metaphor is seen in Beatrice handing drugs to other inpatients like a priest administering salvation during a holy communion; a symbol for a desperate need by patients for drugs to heal their madness and become “normal” again.

In spite of exploring hard hitting issues relating to motherhood, mental illness, and the human rights of mentally-ill subjects, Like Crazy still manages to offer moments of black comedy, delivered impeccably by an outstanding performance from its two female leads Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Micaela Ramazzotti.  It surely deserves the awards received at the Nastro d’Argento 2016 and David di Donatello 2017 film festivals for Best Director, Best Film and Best Actress to Valeria Bruni Tedeschi.

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