Hot, Gay, Italian. How these films question ideas about sexuality and masculinity.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)

Glistening water, old love songs on the radio, red wine, and very, very short swim trunks: Italy in the summer is where we all long to be. A country so closely associated with living the good life and indulging in all things delicious, it came up with a name for it: La Dolce Vita. Various films throughout time and across genres have not been hesitant to explore and identify the decadent beauty of the Italian Summer. What the seductive setting can teach us about sexuality, transformation and masculinity will be examined in this piece, zoning in on two prominent examples. Andiamo.

The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999), based on the Patricia Highsmith novel and directed by Anthony Minghella, turns 1950s Italy into a stage for deception and transformation. The protagonist, Tom Ripley (Matt Damon), navigates his complex feelings of envy, admiration, and desire towards the endlessly charismatic Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law), who’s lavishly living off of his father’s money in Positano. Initially sent to Italy by Dickie’s parents to convince him to return to America after months of hedonistic escapades in Europe, the opportunist Tom becomes entangled in a homoerotic game of impersonation and deceit.

After Ripley is admitted to be a part of Dickie’s extravagant lifestyle in Italy, fascination turns into infatuation, infatuation into obsession, until Ripley’s number one goal is to completely assume Dickie’s identity. The picturesque shots of Italy’s seaside serve as a stark contrast to Ripley’s inner turmoil. In the US of the late 1950s, with post-war conservatism at its peak, expression of anything deterring from the strict norm would be starkly judged and even punished. Not so much in Italy; Post-WW2 Rome experienced a cultural liberation and became the epicentre of nightlife, fashion, art and music. This is crucial to The Talented Mr. Ripley, as the American characters in it physically escape to Italy where they are able to be whoever they want to be. Dickie is allowed more freedom in his expression of masculinity because he is wealthy, while Ripley is constricted by his class and background. The film subtly critiques the performative aspects of masculinity, as Ripley’s chameleon-like ability to adopt new identities reflects his yearning to escape the rigid confines of his own. “I always thought it would be better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody“, he admits.

Minghella’s adaptation is much less subtle in its queer reading than the original novel. Longing permeates every interaction between Ripley and Dickie: Their dynamic places Ripley in a submissive role while Dickie’s financial, social, and physical superiority makes him dominant. Ripley’s resistance to this dominance both challenges and ultimately reinforces it. The back and forth of love and loathing, the intertwining of desire and envy so clearly tells the classic tale of repressed homosexuality.

The Italian setting allows the characters to challenge their understanding of sexuality, masculinity and queerness in new ways. Italy itself becomes a part of their journey to self-expression (even if that journey ends in murderous ways).

While The Talented Mr. Ripley is set in coastal 1950s Italy, Call Me By Your Name (2017) takes place in northern 1980s Italy. Directed by Luca Guadagnino, the film chronicles the burgeoning romance between seventeen year old Italian-American Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), who’s come to stay with Elio’s family to study under his father. The dream-like summer setting, with its lush landscapes and leisurely pace, provides a space for Elio and Oliver to explore their desires away from societal scrutiny. After an enormous hype around the film took place circa 2019, critical voices argued it portrays and romanticizes a “problematic age-gap“, with Elio being only seventeen and Oliver being 24. Others disagree, saying the difference in age further comments on the taboo-factor of queer relationships at the time without deeming it as entirely uncomplicated. 

Without relying on explicit sex scenes, Call Me By Your Name is a sensual film through and through. The character’s hands and eyes are constantly touching, grazing and lingering on things and people. Interactions between characters but also between characters and their environment are constantly charged and sensuality is not limited to just human connection (the most obvious example being the infamous Peach Scene). The combination of the nostalgic color grading, dreamy score, lingering shots and _ creates an atmospheric seduction that pulses through the film’s entirety. 

Furthermore, Call Me By Your Name references Italian high culture, specifically Hellenistic and Roman sculptures, that Oliver and Elio’s father are studying. With its close association to homosexuality and other queerness, these clear references to Roman and Greek mythology help beautifully develop the film’s images of desire, or Eros. The film links the ancient statuary with an aesthetic sensualism.

Without the sun-drenched fields and chirping crickets, the vibrant piazzas and the fruit-laden trees, the film’s approach to intimacy and desire could not have been conveyed the same way. Italy therefore becomes a character in its own right. And like in Ripley, Italy is the place that allows the characters to explore the possibilities of their own identity and sexuality. Guadagnino sensibly captures the fluidity of identity and the vulnerability inherent in opening oneself up to love.

Both of these films utilize Italy’s timeless and transformative energy to question ideas of masculinity in their respective eras. Each character is fighting to defy the tight margins imposed on them by society, religion or other outside forces. 

Other films that contribute to this genre include Stealing Beauty (1996), which delves into a young woman’s sexual awakening in the Tuscan countryside, and A Bigger Splash (2015), where a rock star’s retreat in Pantelleria leads to intense emotional and sexual entanglements (and which is a remake of a 1969 Classic: La Piscine). Each of these films uses the Italian setting to peel back the layers of their characters, revealing the often fragile nature of constructed identities. 

If you’re anything like me and can’t get enough of Luca Guadagnino, you should also definitely check out his 2020 HBO series We Are Who We Are, which, in Guadagnino fashion, explores gender, sexuality and coming-of-age on a US military basis in Italy. Highly recommend!Through the lens of the Italian Summer film genre, we witness a nuanced interrogation of masculinity and queerness, set against the backdrop of a country that has long been synonymous with art, passion, and transformation. So next time you find yourself Italy, make sure to bring lots of sunscreen and the Call Me By Your Name soundtrack, to live out the ultimate fantasy.