Film Review: Like Crazy

Great performances by Valeria Bruni Tedeschi and Micaela Ramazzotti anchor this commedia al'Italiana-inspired movie.
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The original title of Paolo Virzi’s latest film, Like Crazy, is La Pazza Gioia or “Crazy with Joy.” That is a more apt description of this story about two women who escape from their all-female psychiatric hospital—and for a movie that takes its inspiration from la commedia al’Italiana. These 1960s-era films are not comedies in the American sense of that word. Their stories harken back to Italian Neorealism, to authentic portrayals of the human condition, but with touches of wry humor.

Virzi’s duo, Beatrice (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Donatella (Micaela Ramazzotti), possess a distinctly tragic dimension. They are fated, yet their mental anguish is not necessarily the result of diminished circumstances, as it is for the characters in such Neorealist classics as Rome: Open City or The Bicycle Thief. The aging beauty, Beatrice, from whose point-of-view Like Crazy unfolds, and her young friend Donatella, are reminiscent of Antonio Pietrangeli’s protagonists, especially Adriana (Stefania Sandrelli) in I Knew Her Well (1965). A beauty queen from the provinces, Adriana becomes despondent over the exploitation she suffers on her way to becoming a top model. Unable to regain what she has lost of herself, Adriana jumps to her death.

Verzi (Human Capital, 2013), and his co-screenwriter, Francesca Archibugi (Verso Sera, 1990), like the proto-feminist Pietrangeli, view women as destined for emotional abandonment and disenfranchisement by virtue of their gender. Beatrice’s wealthy family ignored her erratic behavior and her incessant talking—until she squandered her fortune on a gigolo. Working-class Donatella lacks the resiliency that wealth might have provided. Her tattoos and her body piercings, as Beatrice rightly surmises, are here instances of self-harm, articulations of psychic suffering. Donatella’s breakdown is triggered by the birth of her son, but both she and Beatrice share deep-seated wounds that reach back to childhood.

The movie begins with Beatrice walking the grounds of the hospital, which is housed in a Tuscan villa. She criticizes other patients and the staff for their improprieties; she then argues with the director over her lack of release time, and the fact that she must share a room. The director tells her she needs to get along with the other women. Beatrice’s riposte is a reminder to the director that she is only there because her family wants control of her money. Beatrice’s sense of entitlement and her story appear credible; in fact, she is a countess and Villa Biondi was willed to the staff by her aunt.

When Donatella arrives, she mistakes Beatrice for a psychiatrist—and for a few minutes, Beatrice poses as one. Driven by curiosity, Beatrice means no harm, and in a delightful imitation of a doctor, tut-tuts over Donatella’s prescription medications. While Beatrice possesses a multitude of upper-class attitudes, including respect for Silvio Berlusconi, she responds to the progressive hospital staff’s genuine displays of kindness. She also recognizes authentic suffering when she sees it, which is the reason she takes Donatella under her wing—even when Donatella rebuffs her.

Beatrice and Donatella escape during release time at a local nursery. At first, they are ecstatic, but it soon becomes clear that while Beatrice wants adventure, Donatella seeks a reunion with her son, now living with a foster family. Their best “crazy with joy” moment comes when their stolen car runs out of gas and they abandon it in the middle of a narrow road. A passing motorist asks Beatrice if she is crazy, and she replies, “According to some evaluations, yes.” Both women know that their unexpected jaunt is only a short respite from their much-needed treatment at the hospital.

As straight comedy, Like Crazy, with its excellent dialogue, off-kilter characters and touch of class conflict, would be hilarious; in Verzi’s hands, the mix is amusing and refreshingly original, Beatrice’s edge holding the promise of chaos. Rather than drawing the audience into the comic possibilities, the writer-director pulls viewers into Beatrice’s obvious complexity. Bruni Tedeschi, who in real life is to the manor born, looks the part, and her performance is breathtaking: She careens from fits of paranoia to astonishing depths of insecurity, and to the graceful countess ready to rescue Donatella, all the while revealing a heartrending fragility.

In order to highlight the singularity of his characters, Virzi relies on the intimacy of a handheld camera. He shoots long takes so that the audience can observe Beatrice’s loquaciousness, and Donatella’s silence and her tense, coiled body, as layers of improvised protection. While Ramazzotti’s performance is less riveting than Bruni Tedeschi’s, she shines in the last third of the movie when through sheer force of will Beatrice delivers the one thing Donatella needs to feel alive again. The road never promises healing, only transformation, and for Beatrice it is a profound acceptance of self, not as a victim, but as a survivor—and that has the satisfying ring of truth.

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