L’amante perduto (1999) directed by Roberto Faenza. With Ciarán Hinds, Juliet Aubrey, Stuart Bunce, Clara Bryant. NB: this post is more a critical appreciation than a review and contains spoilers.
I’ll begin with a fairytale. A prince and princess were wed, and expected to live happily ever after, but their new baby died, and the princess fell into a deep malaise from which none of the kingdom’s healers could revive her.
After very long while, the prince one day brought home something to amuse her, a beautiful crystal ball. Within this sphere the princess could see the face of her lost baby, and she smiled, then even laughed. For the first time in years, the prince felt hope, even though the princess was entranced with the crystal ball, and paid him no attention because of her fascination with the new toy.
Then one day, the crystal ball disappeared without a trace, and the princess fell back into the depths of despair. The prince scoured the kingdom, looking for the lost talisman that had revived his wife. He searched tirelessly for months and months. At last, he found the crystal ball, and brought it carefully back to the palace. When he placed it into her hands, the princess gazed into it, then looked up and smiled at him. “Thank you,” she said. The spell was broken. She no longer needed the talisman, and her sickness was cured at last.
L’amante perduto (The Lost Lover) is based on the book by Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua. It chronicles the life of one family in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur war in 1973. The novel has been described as “dreamlike,” “highly symbolic” and “unpretentious.” I think these are good descriptions of the film as well. For me, it is a parable, the story of a husband’s patient and unflagging love for, and care of, his emotionally fragile wife.
In this story, the “crystal ball” is actually Gabriel, a beautiful youth. Asya, the wife of Adam Goldberg, has suffered depression for thirteen years because of the death of their son, growing more and more distant over time. When Asya becomes infatuated with Gabriel, Adam sits by, watching their love unfold. The viewer wonders how he can suffer this so passively. And yet, Adam is happy. It is the first time his wife has smiled and laughed in thirteen years.
The film makes us reexamine our stereotypes of gender. We are accustomed to the concept of a woman looking the other way when her husband strays, but what about a man? The casting of Adam was all-important. They needed someone who could be patient, gentle and nurturing without compromising his masculinity.
When Gabriel disappears, Adam knows instinctively that he has to prove to Asya that Gabriel has not died. He understands that Asya’s love for young Gabriel is as much maternal as erotic. And so he drives the roads of Israel for months, searching for Gabriel’s instantly recognizable old Morris Minor. It is no coincidence that Adam owns a garage, and that he restored the car as a gift for Gabriel. The Morris is a central symbol in the film.
This is a deeply moving story of steadfast, enduring love. It reminded me of what happened when Sandra Day O’Connor’s husband John, stricken with Alzheimer’s, developed a romance with another patient in his care facility. Far from being jealous, she was pleased to see him so happy. In Adam’s case, however, there is more of a struggle, because he wants Asya to return his love. It is a risky path and he could lose her entirely. But Ciarán Hinds’ performance, especially in the scenes where he calmly but intently watches Asya with Gabriel, suggests that Adam knows what he’s doing.
When I read the novel, I realized that my intuition about the character was correct, at least in part. The literary Adam is a more ambiguous character than the one on film. The basis of his life is staying in control, and in his own quiet way, he surrounds and encompasses others, keeping them within his power. In the book, the crisis is as much Adam’s as Asya’s, since the loss of his son was a situation over which he had no control. The vulnerable Gabriel is, for Adam too, a way of filling the void and reasserting that control. That’s why, when Gabriel disappears, Adam will stop at nothing to find “the Lover” and bring him home again.
A subplot in both film and book has to do with Adam and Asya’s daughter Dafi, from whom (at Asya’s insistence) they have withheld the fact that she had a brother. Dafi comes into conflict with her mother, and meanwhile begins to fall in love with a young Palestinian boy, Na’im, whom Adam has brought to act as caretaker to Gabriel’s aged grandmother (a luminous Phyllida Law).
The historical context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looms in the background, but never dominates the viewer’s attention. Instead, Dafi’s story too is a lesson about how easily true lovers can become lost to one another.
L’amante perduto features Ciarán Hinds in a rare romantic role. Many of the scenes are silent, giving him plenty of opportunities to speak with his eyes–what he does best. Much remains unspoken. (In the film, we do not understand Gabriel’s disappearance, but in the book, we learn that he was a deserter from the Israeli army.) There is no high drama, in spite of the powerful emotions at play. Instead the mood is gentle and contemplative, and the direction is observational. You may see in the film quite a different story than I did. But that is part of the magic.