The impact of first love is incomparable, with even the tiniest details remaining rich and precise in memory even after decades have passed. Fleeting summer romances can become seismic events that shift the foundations of the self. Even after the heart has been hardened by a lifetime of disappointment, it can melt recalling those first joyful, intimate moments that stick in the mind as vivid and visceral as a recent trauma.
In ‘Nostalgia’, the first love is one that forms between two 15-year-old boys Felice and Oreste, getting into trouble on the streets of Naples, and while it is never shown to be sexual, it is deeply romantic and passionate. The two teenagers ride, arms wrapped around each other, on a moped, the Italian sunshine carefree and enraptured by each other’s presence. When Felice is beaten up by a rival gang it is Oreste that comes to his aid with the fiery fury of a lifelong soulmate. 40 years later, when Felice returns to Naples, the bond hasn’t broken, and he tells a priest who labels Oreste a “blindly violent man” that he remains his “best friend and brother.”
Adapted from Ermanno Rea’s 2016 novel, “Nostalgia” has none of the fuzzy coziness that the title might evoke. Instead it tells the story of Felice’s return to the city of his childhood to visit his abandoned mother once more before she dies. Compared to Martone’s earlier work, Naples-set works like the brutal crime saga “The Mayor of Rione Sanita” or psychological thriller “L’Amore Molesto,” there is less stylistic flourish and melodrama, and a more mercenary cold view of the director’s native city.
From the moment Felice steps off his plane from Cairo there is an air of the uncanny. His mother’s apartment is in the same building but now on a different floor, the streets are familiar but the people are not, even those who recognize him have memories that diverge from his own. He himself is a very different man from the teenage boy who fled 40 years prior. He is successful, confident, and elegantly weathered. Most significantly he has strayed far from his Catholic roots: having converted to Islam he now abstains from alcohol and prays to Allah with quiet intensity.
He tells his glamorous wife back in Egypt that the city hasn’t changed but, as the film goes on, Felice becomes just as enraptured by the ideas of Naples past as Martone does. In the flashbacks to Felice’s youth the aspect ratio changes, and the palette is warmer and more inviting. While it’s a conventional choice it extends beyond just the view of Oreste. The streets are cleaner, the sun is always shining, and his mother is immaculately turned out with a perfectly coiffed stiff hairdo. A far cry from the half blind and confused elderly woman that Felice finds in a cramped basement studio.
For a film about nostalgia it nakedly views the concept with contempt. Talking to a seamstress colleague who ruminated on “the good old days when there was work” Felice snaps back with “it was better when you worked as a kid breathing in glue?” But nostalgia consumes Felice like a fever. Even aware of its destructive force he is powerless against it, haunted by the time he spent with Oreste as he walks down familiar alleyways.
As the grip of nostalgia tightens around Felice’s neck, the film frames him as a more passive, tragic figure, unable to escape his fate. Despite being warned by Raffaele, an elderly father figure, and the charismatic priest Don Luigi Rega to leave Naples and stay away from Oreste, Felice feels he’s finally home. Yet even Don Luigi and Rafaelle themselves speak to a warmer, more elegant Italy, with the old-school charm, values and sense of community from a part-remembered, part imagined bygone era. Felice begins to feel tied to Naples, that the place of his birth must also be the place that he dies, even though peeks at his life in Cairo reveal a stylish well-appointed home and a loving doctor for a wife.
Oreste, for all that Felice longs to re-connect with their giddy youthful love story, represents the path not taken. Oreste is now angry and jittery, coiled like a serpent preparing to attack. He has no family, no love in his life, and his connection to others is limited to heavily armed foot soldiers and the occasional coldly dismissed sex worker. Where last year’s “Hand of God” saw Paolo Sorrentino returning to the Naples of his childhood in celebration of its stories, people, and stunning landscapes, Martone’s Naples is nakedly cursed, with the potential of those who stayed withering on the vine.
As the two men circle each other in the film’s second half, it shifts from contemplative drama to full-blown suspenseful thriller. It is in the latter mode that Martone shines best as a filmmaker and Pierfrancesco Favino does as an actor. The transition period in between is when we are on shakiest footing, and into that uncertainty the middle act feels like it’s just biding time until a full explanation for Felice’s exodus and the inevitable third act confrontation. Despite the charming performance from Francesco Di Leva as the priest, most of his scenes narratively amount to little more than stalling for time.
While Oreste and Felice remained shackled to each other through shared memory, that force proves a destructive one. ‘Nostalgia’s’ mediations of the unfading optimism the memory can bring prove compelling and its most striking moments are when it contrasts with the cruelty of the present day. The grey area in-between may be more mundane, but it makes not being able to return to the folly of youthful romance all the more painful.
“Nostalgia” premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.