Furtive Glances Past and Present; Ferzan Ozpetek's "Facing Windows"
by Howard Feinstein
A rich, occasionally overwrought melodrama about the memory of lost love, the Italian film "Facing Windows" explores the power of looking, the gaze of desire. The eyes are indeed windows to the soul -- and more. Director Ferzan Ozpetek parallels two stories in Rome from different eras. One is set in 1943, when the Nazis rounded up residents of the Jewish Quarter; the other is contemporary, taking place in the newer suburbs. Ozpetek sometimes links the periods with a pan in a single shot, and intentionally highlights the symmetry between two couples, one from each period.
The modern duo has been married for nine years, many of them unhappy. Giovanna (the astonishing Giovanna Mezzogiorno) is a beautiful, spontaneous woman, an accounting inspector in a poultry factory who earns extra money by making desserts for a pub. Her husband, the macho, more reserved Filippo (Filippo Nigro), checks gas meters on trucks for a living and is now on the night shift. He is as indecisive as she is decisive. They have two young children, cute but nagging. The wartime tale focuses on Davide (legendary actor Massimo Girotti, who died before the production was complete), a handsome Jew who had a clandestine affair with another young Jewish man called Simone. The two couples become thematically entwined when generous Filippo and a reluctant Giovanna take Davide, now an old man wandering the streets in a bout of amnesia, into their home.
While fear of disclosure complicates the relationship between the two men in the wartime story, a handsome stranger living just opposite them intrudes on Giovanna and Filippo's domestic anomie. Lorenzo (Raoul Bova) is a good-looking bank employee whose living room window faces the one in their kitchen. Giovanna's initial furtive glances into his apartment clue us into the fact that the passion has fizzled out of her marriage, for her anyway. She does not at first realize that Lorenzo has been sizing her up as well. That she discovers one night at the pub when she first meets him, and he proceeds to recite her daily rituals.
The two are forced to take things outside when Davide, whom she has left in the car, wanders off, and Lorenzo gallantly assists in the search. They find Davide in the Jewish Quarter, which looks very much as it had 60 years before. The music swells as he follows a man whom he thinks is his lover. Later, sinking to the ground, he bangs on the shuttered gate of a small fabric shop, which we will find out is owned by Simone's family. The pair has no way of comprehending his actions. Lorenzo will later tell Giovanna that the old man, in his opinion apparently mistaking him for "a woman" from his past, tells him he loves him. That the lost object of Davide's affection was a man eludes the two beyond when circumstances should dictate otherwise.
In flashback we see Davide and Simone sneaking peeks at each other while dancing with women at a party, clearly a rhyme with Giovanna and Lorenzo's stares. Ozpetek wisely draws a tangential connection between the homophobia of the '40s and racial and immigration issues in the modern story. Giovanna's best friend, who provides important comic relief, lives with an African immigrant who suffers the taunts of neighbors. And at the chicken factory where both women work, the pal berates Giovanna for nearly turning in an illegal Asian laborer.
Davide stays on with Giovanna and Filippo. Not remembering his real name, he even calls himself Simone. Only later, when clues lead Giovanna to his home, does she discover who he really is. By this time his memory has recovered enough for him to explain what aborted his great love affair. Given the chance to save from the Germans his boyfriend or groups of Jews, he picked the latter. "I chose to warn the others first," he explains. "I had to show them I was worthy." The revelation is painful for the viewer, who feels the corrosive impact of intolerance.
It turns out that Davide became a famous baker after the war. Unasked, he had already advised Giovanna in her own kitchen while observing her preparing her pub treats. Now she sees for herself his handiwork: full tables of luscious creations. In a key scene in the film, he teaches her the art of fine baking. Ozpetek forges yet another bond between the two. "Don't be content to merely survive," Davide tells her. "Dream." Will she make the leap and leave her job to do what she has always wanted, working as a pastry chef in a bakery?
I don't want to tell you what ultimately transpires between her and Lorenzo. Suffice it to say that she ventures over to his flat and begins some hanky-panky, then looks out his window at her family. The music becomes schmaltzy. She is conflicted, and Ozpetek waits until the last minute to reveal the final outcome. Appropriately, he ends the film with her looking directly into the camera. Cinema itself is predicated on the sense of sight. An academic might have great fun deconstructing "Facing Windows." For the rest of us, it's a joy to watch.