As an actress and occasional director Italo-French star Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (Slack Bay, A Castle in Italy) has made a career out of playing flinty and flighty women who are often way in over their heads. In Like Crazy (La pazza gioia), which reunites her with her Human Capital director, Paolo Virzi, she finally gets to play an actual crazy person locked up in an institution and the role both fits her like a glove and again reveals what makes Tedeschi such a fascinating performer.
She shares top billing here with Virzi’s other half, actress Micaela Ramazzotti (Darker than Midnight, Those Happy Years), another patient at the same establishment with whom Tedeschi’s character decides to run away from it all, Thelma & Louise-style. Though not contemporary Italian cinema’s definitive take on mental illnesses or institutions — that would be the epic, six-hour Cannes Un Certain Regard title The Best of Youth from 2003 — this Directors’ Fortnight title is nonetheless a pleasingly warm, human and female take on the subject, shot through with Virzi’s customary attention to not only the characters but also the wider socio-political background.
Beatrice (Bruni Tedeschi) walks around Villa Biondi as if she owns the place, which might technically be true, since Beatrice says her family donated the sumptuous, centuries-old dwelling that houses the mental institution for women where she’s a patient. But the unkempt and perennially pushy and overly enthusiastic Beatrice can be delusional at times, so perhaps she’s all making it all up, like when she pretends to be a doctor receiving the latest arrival, Donatella (Ramazzotti), much to the latter’s consternation. What’s fascinating about Beatrice is that she always lives very intensely in the moment, making it hard to grasp for an outsider when she’s being truthful and when she’s making things up. She also has one of those personalities that simply bulldozers over any kind of opposition to her or her plans, which is how the initially standoffish Donatella ends up as her roommate and then her accomplice and friend.
The duo’s escape from the asylum isn’t premeditated but rather comes about because the van that’s supposed to pick them up from their workplace is late and Beatrice sees a bus pass by and hops onto it with Donatella in tow. The film features a lot of handheld shots that help imbue a sense of energy but the standout shot is a simple medium close-up of the duo sitting side by side aboard the bus. They smile in silence at their first taste of freedom in God knows how long, which in turn amply justifies the wild runaway behavior that follows. “We’re just looking for a little bit of happiness,” Beatrice says, and Virzi, who wrote the screenplay with Francesca Archibugi (A Stroke of Luck, which also starred Ramazzotti), turns the remainder of the film into an exploration of what happiness is, how it can be found and what it really means to be “crazy”. At the end of the road, it’s clear that most of the ladies’ mad antics come either from a place of love or a desire for freedom, the latter the one thing they can’t get in a mental institution.
Rather predictably, the women’s odyssey takes the form of a road trip of sorts as they “borrow” a shady man’s car; they live it up in expensive restaurants (even though they have no access to money) and they get in touch with their parents, Beatrice’s former husband and Donatella’s former employer. What counts here is not the originality — which is very limited — but the truths of these encounters and how they relate to where the two women are now. And as such, they work fine.
The story’s most complex piece of the puzzle (spoilers ahead) is Donatella’s relationship with her young son, who was put up for adoption. An encounter between Beatrice, acting as an embassy, and the boy’s adoptive parents is beautifully played and extremely touching and there’s an echo of this in a later scene on a sunny beach that similarly finds just the right balance between the wistfulness caused by lost opportunities and gratitude for the moments we do get. But these highlights — together with a striking sequence on a boardwalk where the two ladies find themselves at dusk — are strong enough to stand on their own, while Virzi feels the need to prop them up with garishly desaturated flashbacks that fill in every blank, robbing the latter reels of some of the story’s more suggestive poetry moments while risking to turn a heartfelt subplot into something borderline maudlin (the predominance of the flute on the soundtrack doesn’t help in this regard).
Even though one could argue that Bruni Tedeschi was typecast here, she takes the role and runs with it, beautifully grading the different nuances of her headstrong character, whose outward exuberance clearly hides a lot of hurt and a fear of loneliness. Ramazzotti has the thankless task of playing the woman who’s initially sucked into Beatrice’s tornado, though as we get to know her better and she sheds some of her tattooed tough-girl guard, she blossoms into a fully rounded character as well. The other patients in the Villa Biondi scenes are played by actual female inmates of a mental institution and their presence helps suggest how well Bruni Tedeschi and Ramazzotti blend in.
The story is specifically set in 2014, before a law was passed that ordered all Judicial Mental Hospitals closed. However, as per a note in the end credits, only half of the patients in these institutions have since found an alternative home.
Cast: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Micaela Ramazzotti, Valentina Carnelutti, Tommaso Ragno, Bob Messini, Sergio Albelli, Anna Galiena, Marisa Borini, Marco Messeri, Bobo Rondelli
Director: Paolo Virzi
Screenplay: Paolo Virzi, Francesca Archibugi
Producer: Marco Belardi
Director of photography: Vladan Radovic
Production designer: Tonino Zera
Costume designer: Catia Dottori
Editor: Cecilia Zanuso
Music: Carlo Virzi
Sales: BAC Films
No rating, 118 minutes