Like Crazy approaches the topic of mental illness with humour and pathos through two superbly written and performed focal characters.
Paolo Virzi’s dramedy Like Crazy is built around two very different characters, Beatrice (Valeria Bruni Tedeschi) and Donatella (Micaela Ramazzotti – Virzi’s wife), who escape from a female-only mental institution and go on the road.
Beatrice is a manic talker whose frenetic dialogue energises the film and functions not only as a characterisation device but also to immerse the viewer in the chaotic world of the mentally unbalanced. The effect is ultimately draining. You feel by the end of the film that you’ve been through the wringer, that you’ve sampled a little of the experience of living at Beatrice’s hyper-intensity.
She is constantly asserting that she is one of the rich and powerful set and a countess to boot. She even claims that her family owns the institution, the Villa Biondi, at which she is in-patient. Donatella, by contrast, is shut down and bewildered, a gaunt, tattooed, fragile wreck, obviously traumatised and damaged. We subsequently learn that she has attempted to kill her young son.
On admission to the Villa Biondi, Donatella finds herself in a consultation room with Beatrice, who opportunistically poses as a psychiatrist. From this point Beatrice takes the reluctant but compliant newcomer under her wing.
When the chance arises to hop aboard a passing public bus, Beatrice seizes it and drags Donatella along to share the adventure. They are in search of freedom and a good time and find both when they avail themselves of (ie, steal) a car and set off on a road trip.
There are plenty of entertaining and humorous moments en route. However, comedy also blends with pathos, as their adventures bring them back in contact with significant people from their past – parents, ex-spouses and employers, and in the case of Donatella, her son, who has been adopted out. He no longer recognises her, and she chooses to remain incognito in her brief encounters with him. Gutting to watch, as is her meeting with her self-absorbed, uncaring, washed-up muso father, whom she idolises.
We learn that Beatrice’s apparent fantasies of wealth and power have some basis in fact when she visits her ex-husband in the luxurious mansion with expansive grounds overlooking the sea that she once called home. It also emerges that, like Donatella, she has a problematic parental relationship that is the source of much pain.
The gradual unpeeling of the layers of the two lead characters is a fascinating process, expertly handled from different angles, as it were. With Beatrice, we eventually get to see the depressed and lonely person beneath the noisy static of her dialogue, while Donatella emerges slowly from Beatrice’s shadow to gradually assume form as a properly rounded character. Wonderful writing, wonderful acting from both women.
Beautifully managed, too, is the development of their relationship, which becomes ever more supportive – even loving – as they come to know and understand each other, perhaps in a way that no one else can.
Any clichéd, simplistic notions of love and emotional support being a fix for mental illness are avoided. Ditto the oft-floated and somewhat trite idea that folk in the world outside the mental institution are as unbalanced as those within it. The filmmakers do not shy away from the women being mentally ill and we are never left in any doubt that both are in need of professional psychiatric help.
It is refreshing, too, that the Villa Biondi is presented as a progressive, well-run establishment staffed by people who care professionally and appropriately for the patients – there are no Nurse Ratcheds lurking here.
However, there is a telling note at credit roll that the story predates the passing of a law in 2014 that did away with “Judicial Mental Hospitals” – that is, those like Villa Biondi with patients certified by a judge as mentally unwell and requiring institutionalisation, with the addendum that only around half the patients in these institutions have since found alternative care. Of course, there are parallels to this tragic situation in Australia.
If this review has left you with the sense that Like Crazy is heavy-going, I need to dispel that. Yes, in dealing with the topic of mental illness it is confrontational in some ways, and some moments will have many viewers in tears. But this is also an entertaining and funny film, and to my mind one of the very best of the 2016-17 Perth Film Festival to date. It might not make it on to the local film circuit later in the year, so Perthites, do make an effort to catch it at Somerville or Joondalup Pines over the next 2 weeks.
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