Let’s NOT Talk About Death: Review of ‘Euforia’, Directed by Valeria Golino, Italy 2018

Showing in ‘Cinema made in Italy 2019’, London, https://www.british-italian.org/cinema-made-in-italy-2019/.

Review by Dr Khalid Ali, film and media correspondent

‘Euphoria’ is defined as ‘a feeling or state of intense excitement and happiness’. The word originates from the 17th century when it described well-being produced in a sick person by the use of drugs. In her second feature film as a director, award-wining film actress Valeria Golino tells a story of two estranged brothers coming together after one is diagnosed with a ‘brain mass’. Matteo (Riccardo Scamarcio) is a high-flying businessman living in a hedonistic world of one-night stands and drunken parties. In spite of his privileged lifestyle, Matteo is a lonely middle-aged man longing for human connection even if it comes in the form of a fleeting moment of fingers touching with a fellow car-driver on the road. Matteo’s brother Ettore (Valerio Mastandrea) is a village school teacher living a humdrum life with his wife and son. Bored with his mundane existence, Ettore has an illicit affair, contemplates divorce and marrying his mistress in the hope for a new start. Persistent headaches and unexplained falls trigger a visit to a physician who is friends with his brother. Upon Matteo’s request, the doctor withholds from Ettore the true nature of his ‘brain cyst’. Ettore is reassured that a series of radiotherapy sessions in a specialist treatment centre in Rome will shrink ‘the cyst’. Ettore moves to live in his brother’s lavish flat in Rome to undergo treatment. The brothers maintain a pact of ‘silence’ about the ‘cyst’ while spending intimate time getting to know each other as they have never done before. The prognosis of the ‘cyst’ is never openly discussed; it remains the ‘elephant in the room’, hinted at but never confronted. The brothers’ mother, Ettore’s wife, son, and mistress all come to visit, adding more tension and strain to the ‘tense atmosphere’; old arguments, sibling rivalry, and guilt resurfaces and threatens to destroy the emerging bond between the two brothers.

Watch the film trailer on Youtube here.

Several ethical dilemmas run through the narrative; is Matteo justified in withholding the true nature of his brother’s diagnosis? Does he have the right to pretend to Ettore, their mother and everybody else that everything is fine just because he is paying for Ettore’s treatment? What justifies the doctor’s decision to take Matteo’s side in lying to Ettore about the actual diagnosis?

Loneliness and self-doubt are maybe the driving forces behind Matteo’s paternalistic approach; this terminal illness is a ‘golden opportunity’ to be close to his vulnerable brother, to do something good and valuable for once in his life. The truth is just a word that can only result in pain and misery. He firmly believes that by withholding the real diagnosis, he can bring a sense of ‘well-being’, perhaps a heightened state of ‘euphoria’, to all those around him, a feeling that neither money nor drugs can provide. As a responsible caregiver, driven by love and a duty of care, Matteo thinks that he is acting in ‘everybody’s best interests’. He is protecting them from the ‘painful truth’.

Respect for autonomy, patients’ right to know their diagnosis, and paternalistic attitudes to terminally ill patients are themes handled with warmth, wit and subtlety in ‘Euforia’, and is delivered by two outstanding actors, Scamarcio and Mastandrea. A non-judgemental observational, yet compassionate style is consistently adopted by Golino, the film’s director, as the brother’s story unfolds. The director challenges the established consensus that terminally ill patients prefer to know their diagnosis; while the film does not fully endorse the practice of ‘withholding the truth’, it invites the audience to explore the motivations behind the ‘non-disclosure’ of bad news undertaken by close family members. Healthcare professionals need to understand individual family dynamics and the socio-cultural context before communicating with all involved; patients and family members alike. The psychological and spiritual dimensions of suffering and death must be borne in mind at times when an individual illness is a ‘shared family affair’.

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