I used to post foreign film reviews on the now defunct Examiner.com. I’ll start to make some of those reviews available here to preserve them online.
Maria Sole Tognazzi’s A Five Star Life (Viaggia Sola, or I Travel Alone) (Italy, 2013) is a pretty straightforward ‘dramedy’ that touches on a lot of issues contemporary women both engage in and are at conflict with. But there’s a not-so-secret subtext running underneath the occupational, romantic and familial issues that our protagonist, Irene Lorenzi (an appealing and confident Margherita Buy) navigates – she is fully, and confidently, herself; genuinely comfortable in her own skin and guiltlessly content with her single and childless status, deservedly proud that she’s very good at her job, but never allowing what she does for a living to define her life.
When I saw the film at the European Union Film Festival last spring, I was struck by the plain fact that we never, ever, see women like this in mainstream film. They either need to be Crusading Heroines Bucking The Old-Boy Network (Norma Rae, Nine-To-Five, Silkwood, Erin Brockovitch) or Women Who Must Reinvent Themselves After Our Long-Cherished Institutions Fail Them (Mildred Pierce, The First Wives Club, Under The Tuscan Sun, countless others…). Even the most independent, self-sufficient female characters we see in film invariably consider couplehood, or motherhood, or their career choices as necessary compromises or practical inevitabilities. The world is full of perfectly content women who have clearly and freely made the same choices as Irene, but, for some reason, filmmakers and writers always need to include an undercurrent of second guessing, or they need to tailor the circumstances to justify their decisions – the world of men has limited their choices, or their family history dooms them to be a particular kind of person, and they either make the constructive best of it or end up lonely and miserable. (And it isn’t just female characters – I’ve lamented in the past about Nick Hornby’s work [High Fidelity, About A Boy, An Education] constructing achingly single-minded hipsters only to have them ultimately ‘learn their lessons’ about the true value of conformity.)
Irene, it must be said, has an enviable job; she’s a ‘mystery guest’ who works for an agency that sets the ratings for very high-end European hotels. She stays at the finest hotels in the world for three or four days at a time – Paris, Berlin, Tuscany, Switzerland, Marrakesh, Shanghai – analyzing the effectiveness and graciousness of the staff, the quality of the housekeeping, food and amenities, and, ultimately, whether the experience is as satisfying and luxurious as promised. And she’s tough – spying a newlywed couple who are clearly not used to such high-end indulgence, Irene fiercely berates the hotel manager for his staff’s condescension towards them.
When Irene isn’t working (and those breaks are getting fewer and far between – she’s very good at her job, and her boss is constantly adding to her workload), she spends time with her sister’s family or her best-friend ex-boyfriend. Her sister Silvia (Fabrizia Sacchi) harangues her about being a single woman, even though Silvia herself is having some pretty typical marriage and self-esteem issues that Irene simply doesn’t have to contend with. Silvia might like to have more sex with her husband. Might Irene like more sex in her life as well? Sure, but those issues don’t define Irene in the same way they define Silvia. When Irene advises Silvia not to buy a particular dress, it’s because she simply doesn’t like the dress. But Silvia can only ask why the dress isn’t good on her? What is it about her that makes the dress unsuitable? Nonetheless, as sisters, they’re great friends, and make a point to talk to each other every day. Irene even recruits her two young nieces for one of her inspections, giving Silvia a well-deserved break while doing what seems to be a nice adventurous favor for the girls.
Andrea (Stefano Accorsi) runs an organic produce distributorship, and he and Irene share a terrific friendship well after they’ve broken up as an intimate couple. Andrea is now courting a new girlfriend, Fabiana (Alessia Barela), and Irene is nothing if not encouraging. When a particularly tragic occurrence shakes Irene up, she beelines straight to Andrea for comfort. But when aspects of their close friendship start to alienate Fabiana, Irene steps up forthrightly to assure Fabiana of Andrea’s dedicated commitment to their burgeoning new relationship. She defends Andrea, not herself, which turns out to be exactly what Fabiana needed to hear.
One of the centerpieces of the film is a chance encounter that Irene has with a famous sex-positive feminist intellectual, Kate Sherman (Lesley Manville, a terrific performance in a deceptively small role). Irene leads her life day-to-day, rarely having any distance or objectivity. But Kate distills many of Irene’s beliefs about herself and the choices she’s made within a much larger context, and they become immediate mutually-supportive friends.
Irene is a great character because, despite her ‘cushy’ job, she deals with all of the issues we ourselves contend with every day – sharing and supporting the experiences of our families and our friends, constantly assessing and re-assessing whether our work defines us and/or whether it’s worth doing at all. Irene lives a rich and varied life, and doesn’t feel like she lacks for anything, but, like all of us, isn’t oblivious to the other life options she’s weighed, accepted or rejected. If there’s one thing her job has taught her, it’s the importance of standards. Not rules, but empirical standards. Irene is essentially the same person at the end of the film as she was at its beginning, and that’s an immensely good, and distressingly rare, thing. Other reviews and plot synopses are stuffed with words like “conflict,” “fractured,” “struggles,” coming to terms,” “Irene must re-think.” Why should she? I think Irene may work somewhat like a Rorschach test for a lot of viewers – she must be unhappy, she must have regrets, she’s kidding herself. And Irene Lorenzi would be the first person to admit that all of that might be true. But she’s going to move along and get on with her life anyway, taking it as it comes and, ultimately, loving herself through it all. Hollywood needs Meg Ryans and Whitney Houstons and Barbra Streisands to convince us that it’s possible. Italy has Margherita Buy, and in her own modest but impressive way, she might just blow those other divas out of the cinematic water.