Either by coincidence or inspired programming, this year’s Locarno Film Festival offered the opportunity to watch two films that tackled the rather slippery subject of disabled people and their sexual desire, and how it is perceived by those who do not share their condition. It is only in relatively recent times that the issue has started to be studied with any serious consideration by specialized psychologists and educators, let alone be seriously depicted on the screen. It is worth noting that the very notion that it should warrant scientific research does suggest that the sexual desires of the disabled are inherently understood as different. At Locarno, Gabrielle and The Special Need respectively provide a fictional and documentary angle on the subject, offering two different takes whose approaches sometimes overlap, and sometimes veer in completely opposite directions.
In Gabrielle, a passionate mentally handicapped girl in her early twenties yearns for normalcy in both her day-to-day life and the relationship she desires with her fellow choir member Martin. One of the film’s most pertinent aspects lies in how it strives to reveal the prejudice of the “infantilized” representation people like the title-character have to suffer, a widespread illusion that persistently keeps disabled people from successfully transitioning into adult life. The culprit here is Martin’s mother who, after walking in on the two lovebirds in their underwear, forbids her son to see Gabrielle and even participate in choir practice. Through its depiction of Gabrielle’s struggle to overcome that most common of obstacles, the films begs the question who, between Gabrielle and Martin’s overprotective mother, truly suffers from the bigger handicap?
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The film, however, does have issues of its own. Louise Archambault’s feature often oversimplifies nuanced problems to fit the genre’s dramatic requirements. Its proclamation that we are all exactly the same and should be treated in the exact same way is a noble concept, but it also contrasts with the reality of the issue. Current scholarly work reveals that people with Downs Syndrome, to offer one example, often consider sex to be “unhealthy” or “dangerous”, though it is still up to debate whether those sentiments are the result of the taboo still in place in many of their households. At no point in the narrative does Gabrielle betray anything but unwavering, uncompromising, certainty about getting what she wants which, while perfectly justifiable for dramatic purposes, ultimately clarifies the character as an idealistic construct; one that bears little resemblance to the maladroit realities of both first love and first sexual experiences.
Thankfully, revealing that clumsiness inherent to inexperience is one of the most compelling elements of Carlo Zoratti’s docudrama The Special Need: a tightly-wound coming-of-age/road-trip twist on the American Pie myth in which the director and his friend Alex go on a journey through central Europe to effectively get their mentally-disabled friend Enea laid. As implied by the second part of the “docu-drama” label, the Italian director is sometimes guilty of orchestrating emotional beats for the sake of entertainment value more than any truth-seeking motivation, though that shouldn’t take away from the laudable honesty with he captures the touching realizations Enea is forced to face throughout the trip. Zoratti uses the opening third in Udine to show Enea’s natural impulse to try and engage with women and the often humiliating encounters that follow without ever denting his drive, revealing how that missing physical connection has turned into an outright obsession.
The trio then travel to Austria, where prostitution is legal, in order to coordinate an encounter between a prostitute and Enea. When finally given the opportunity to “close the deal,” Enea’s usually extroverted brashness makes way for a timid uncertainty that betrays the genuine sense of inadequacy that he otherwise hides so well. This is the first of several truly touching moments that serve to depict Enea’s gradual steps toward accepting the notion that he might never be able to enjoy things exactly the way other people do. Though Enea is the first to claim that he has “learned a lot” from his trip, Zoratti’s film quietly suggests that the lesson might be better directed to the audience. As we learn to know this most colorful of characters, it becomes harder and harder to find any justification for keeping Enea from fulfilling his most primal of urges. By capturing these moments when his funny childishness dissipates to reveal his earnest longing for basic human contact, The Special Need dispels taboos and facile answers to uncover the truth behind this man’s overwhelming urges: the absence of love, that most essential of sentiments.
Gabrielle and Enea are both surrounded by love, but cultural prejudice would have it that they not participate in the sharing of it. One can only hope that Gabrielle and The Special Need can now pave the way, though on undeniably different terms, for that very prejudice to be slain or at least for the oft-ignored issue to reach the wider attention it deserves.