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It begins in an almost playful mood. In a gallery of ancient art, a handsome, well-dressed man (Andrea Renzi) begins to make a pass at an equally attractive woman (Margherita Buy), who slyly rebuffs him. As we quickly learn, they're actually husband and wife. Then, just as quickly, the direction we thought this story was heading shifts as he, Massimo, dies that most modern of deaths--crossing a street, he's knocked over by a car while making a cell phone call--and she, Antonia, finds out that he was calling to make a romantic assignation with a man.
This seemingly startling fact is discovered by the viewer well in advance of the film's intelligent, well-mannered but otherwise almost cripplingly naïve heroine. Coming across a note scribbled by Massimo on the back of a painting to a certain someone whose term of endearment toward him was "Ignorant Fairy," Antonia is frankly mystified. In fact, even when she's face to face with Massimo's lover, a very good-looking and self-possessed commercial tradesmen named Michele (Stefano Accorsi), she's at a loss. But he is not. He looks his rival right in the eye and pours forth his rage that even with his lover gone ("I never took him away from you," he angrily declares) she still wants to wrest Massimo away from him in memory.
You certainly don't have to be a scriptwriting whiz to see that these two enemies are destined to become friends, especially when Antonia meets Michele's "family"--a ragtag assortment of gays, straights, bisexuals and transgenders of both Italian and Turkish origin. But there are surprises to director Ferzan Ozpetek's film, whose original Italian release title was in point of fact Ignorant Fairy (Le Fati Ignoranti). In contrast, the title His Secret Life may sound a tad melodramatic, but Ignorant Fairy wouldn't have worked in the U.S. market. We're not sophisticated enough to deal with the metaphorical in a casual way. And up until rather recently we wouldn't have been sophisticated enough to deal with a film like this one.
True, we've had straying gay husbands as far back as Making Love in 1982, and Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven had an even more startling take on married men who discover they have what used to be called "strange twilight urges." But, His Secret Life takes place in modern Italy, where a man like Massimo has a male lover in an apartment on the other side of town much as his straight counterparts have female extramarital companionship. Antonia would have known what to do with a female rival--fight. With a man she's at a loss. And so, to a large degree, are straight moviegoers who think they know what movie gays are like, as there has never before been anyone put on screen quite like Michele. Neither a whimpering victim nor a waspish queen, he looks the world right in the eye and demands respect. And more than respect, he demands attention. Antonia ends up giving him both, first by simply accepting an invitation to lunch, then by helping out Ernesto (Gabriel Garko), a friend of Michele's who is HIV-infected and not taking care of himself as well as he might. Likewise she gives advice to Mara (Lucrezia Valia), a transsexual who longs to visit the town where she was born, where no one knows her gender has been altered.
Keeping the mood dry, Ozpetek and his very resourceful leading lady keep the proceedings from turning into an Almodóvar version of Mary Worth. For what gives His Secret Life its bite is the fact that this quintessential well-bred, middle-class "good girl" has gone through life without questioning anything. Now, with her husband gone and his lover unwittingly helping her through the mourning process, she's on the verge of discovering what she really wants out of life.
Moving from the romantic homoeroticism of his first feature, Steam: The Turkish Bath, to the forceful social commentary we see here, Ozpetek joins the ranks of those gay filmmakers who have used the émigré experience to explore same-sex culture in ways that elude the more nationally settled. In the process he shows how the familiar and the "exotic" are merely two sides of the same coin. And when it comes to love, the same could be said of gay and straight.
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