This might seem to be an odd pairing of queer movies. And truthfully I’m combining them more because I don’t think I have enough to say about either movie for a solo article. Both are films I watched in the latter months of 2023. If you haven’t watched Nuovo Olimpo or Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe, then consider yourself warned that I’m talking about the plots of both movies. So if you want to watch them unspoiled, exit now!
Okay, if you’re still here, I’m assuming you’ve seen these movies or don’t care if I blab about the plots. Nuovo Olimpo first simply because I’m going in order. This one was a movie that kept surfacing in the various gay groups I’m part of. Whether the group was about self empowerment or jokey memes, someone would invariably recommend the movie and others would chime in that it was great. The movie is in Italian although I watched it with the English dubbed audio track and I felt like it was good enough. I just far prefer hearing a movie in my native language over reading subtitles. Pick your poison.
No one I saw post to watch the film had gone into any great details about the plot nor given away the ending so I didn’t know whether I was going into a movie with a happy ending or a sad one or what exactly. The film starts in the 1970s where Pietro and Enea meet in a movie theater in Rome. It’s apparently a popular cruising spot with gay men which is what brought Pietro, a shy inexperienced medical student there. Pietro is interested in Enea but unwilling to hook up with him in the bathroom which leads to Enea arranging for them to get together in an empty home that belongs to one of his friends. The sexual encounter between Pietro and Enea was charged. I don’t know another way to describe it – the passion between them was palpable.
The two young men are growing closer when political unrest leads to an accident that separates them basically for the rest of their lives. Enea, a film student, ultimately makes a movie that is clearly their story of young gay romance. I feel this film is an important point because in the movie you see Enea’s depiction of the event and in my opinion it falls short of the original passion the two felt, a cheap copy of the “real moment” the two men experienced. This felt very purposefully done to show that you couldn’t capture the passionately love they shared on film despite both versions being actors.
Enea and Pietro have completely different lives after they are parted. Enea eventually finds another man who he marries while Pietro seems to choose a life in the closet and marries a woman. Both men seem to miss what they originally felt together and their current relationships fall short of their memories of each other. Their paths nearly cross off and on over the years up until the point Enea’s eyes are injured in a filming accident. The doctor who saves his eyesight is none other than Pietro. Pietro recognizes Enea but says nothing to him and Enea can’t see that it’s the man he knew years ago. It all culminates in a dinner party at Pietro’s home. His wife catches on somewhere during the dinner that Enea is an old flame. After Enea leaves she tells Pietro that she wishes he looked at her the same way he looked at Enea and tells him to go after the man he clearly loves.
He does but if you expect a happily ever after reunion, it doesn’t happen. The two men talk and ultimately agree to remember each other and go back to their old lives. The ending shows a scene of the two of them having dinner as they had planned back in 1978 before they were parted. A heartbreaking ending I was honestly not expecting. Everything seemed to be building towards this huge romantic reunion. After I dried the tears though I realized the ending made sense. It was right. The two of them had built up this beautiful romantic memory for decades. It didn’t make sense for Enea to leave his husband. They didn’t have a marriage without bumps but they were clearly close to one another. And even if Pietro wanted to leave his wife, he and Enea no longer really knew each other. The ending was realistic and beautiful in its own way but maybe not what some of us viewers might have expected.
And now leaping to a completely different story of young queer love. Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe is also set in the past but it takes place entirely in the late 1980’s. This movie is from the first of two books and I so enjoyed the movie that I’m now certain I’m reading the books. If for no other reason because I want more of Ari and Dante. Ari was so relatable for me. There were bits of Dante that resonated as well but it was Ari who was afraid to feel his feelings that most clicked with me. The two teens meet at the pool one summer day and quickly become close friends. Although they are both of Mexican heritage Dante’s parents are more educated while Ari’s are more working middle class. That first summer there’s an accident where Ari jumps to the rescue to push Dante out of the path of a speeding car. He saves Dante’s life but both are injured with Ari taking the worst of it. As the summer draws to a close Dante’s family is going to Chicago for a year – his father has a guest professor position there. It’s in Chicago that Dante ultimately comes to terms with being gay. His letters back to his friend Ari start with kissing a girl and build to the angst of needing to tell his parents he’s gay.
That same summer Ari finally got his parents to tell him about his older brother who they would never talk about. His brother was in prison for killing a “transvestite hooker” (sic) he had picked up one night in his teens and Ari was very small. His parents had protected Ari from this by sending him to stay with an aunt during the aftermath. His parents had been living with this unspoken grief for years and Ari clearly felt a hole in their lives surrounded by secrecy.
As I said, I definitely resonate more with Ari in this film. He doesn’t seem to fully react to the news about Dante being gay up to the point they finally see each other and he and Dante spend an day together. It ends with Dante talking Ari into kissing him. Dante seems to instinctively feel Ari might have the same feelings for him but the result is after they kiss a very confused Ari gets angry and yells at Dante to get out of his truck. They part company with much trauma for both of the teens.
Not long after this, Ari’s Tía Ophelia dies – this was the aunt he had stayed with when his parents sent him away. After the funeral Ari asks why most of the family didn’t attend and finds out that his aunt was a lesbian and the rest of the family didn’t approve. The parts of her story start falling into place as he remembers the woman she lived with years before. One of the reasons I mention this detail is I think it’s important to the conversation that Ari’s parents will later have with him about Dante.
Ari finds out that Dante is in the hospital and goes to visit where he finds him bruised and beaten. Dante’s parents explain that Dante and his friend Daniel were seen kissing and were attacked. Daniel ran but Dante didn’t. After hearing this Ari is clearly upset and confronts Daniel about who the men were. He gets a couple of names and Ari confronts one of them and beats him in the parking lot where he works. This was shocking but really showed how much Ari cared for Dante even if he couldn’t admit it. Ari went home to his parents who clearly had already heard what happened before they saw him arrive home covered in blood.
And this was the conversation that at first surprised me because his parents both told him that they believed he cared for Dante as more than a friend but was hiding from his feelings for him. At first blush I was shocked. It just wasn’t a conversation I could have imagined my parents ever initiating back in the 1980s. I mean they didn’t talk about sex, relationships, etc at all. So seeing Ari’s parents basically saying we think you’re gay and afraid to admit it was a bit mind blowing.
I sat with those thoughts awhile and it occured to me that first of all they had experience with Ari’s Tía Ophelia. They had seen and accepted a lesbian couple as part of their family which probably gave them quite a head start to seeing the same thing in their son. I also think Ari’s older brother was part of their reason for acceptance. Not that he was per se also gay but that they had watched him struggle with controlling feelings that ultimately led to him killing someone in a rage. Ari was similarly bottling up feelings which was what led him to go after the man who attacked Dante. I think in a way that had played a part in their willingness to do whatever was necessary to get Ari to “stop running away” from his feelings.
The only thing about the movie that felt off to me in the end was that after this scene with Ari’s parents talking to him about his love for Dante we leap directly to Dante and Ari in the desert. Enough time has passed that Dante is mostly healed but not completely. Still I feel like weeks must have passed. What happened in the interim? Did no one press charges against Ari for beating someone in public? Or did that guy not want to pursue it because it started with him attacking someone else?? There’s a part of me missing the details there. It makes me wonder if part of the book was skipped over?
The film ends with Ari confessing to Dante that when they kissed he lied when he said he felt nothing. As night falls they are lying in the back of the pickup holding hands. It feels like the perfect ending. I don’t need to know if they live happily ever after or not. Even if this is just a first love, it works for me. But I still want to read the books so I can find out what comes next. I mean. if there wasn’t more to the story I would feel satisfied with the ending as is but the curiosity will drive me to the books. Heaven knows if one can expect a movie sequel to a queer love story, you know?