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On a literal level, Maria LuisaBemberg’s humanitarian fable, I Don’t Want to Talk About It, is concerned with smallness. But, as scripted by Bemberg and Jorge Goldenberg from a story by Julio Llinás, the film is about something that’s harder to quantify—small-mindedness.
Set in an isolated Latin American hamlet during the ’30s, Talk is the story of widowed Leonor (Bemberg regular Luisina Brando), and her adored only child, Charlotte (Alejandra Podesta). The film opens on the occasion of Charlotte’s second birthday, when a well-meaning neighbor makes the mistake of trying to establish a bond of sympathy between herself and Leonor. The neighbor’s little girl is deaf, and Leonor’s daughter, although her mother will not say so out loud, is a dwarf. Leonor is harsh in her rejection of the woman’s overtures, and from that day forward, her refusal to acknowledge Charlotte’s reduced stature becomes a kind of madness.
Mobilized by the birthday party incident, Leonor sets off on a midnight rampage. Bundling into her car with a pickax, she rides to a nearby house whose front wall is decorated by a row of Lilliputian lawn ornaments. There she hacks the statuettes into pieces and buries their crumbled remains. Back home, she makes a fire of all the books in the house—everything from Gulliver’s Travels to Tom Thumb—that include descriptions of little people. It’s a testament to Leonor’s strength of character that her will eventually compels the entire town. The local citizenry is cowed by her staunch denial, and Charlotte reaches young adulthood having never had her height remarked upon by anyone.
The unhurtful world that Leonor rigorously contrives for Charlotte remains intact even after the arrival in town of suave, worldly sophisticate Ludovico D’Andrea (Marcello Mastroianni…of course). He charms the bookish girl with fantastic tales of faraway lands, and later, to the astonishment of his circle at the local bordello, concedes that he has fallen in love with her and makes her his wife. (“His machine is damaged,” surmises a barroom buddy.) Even at her daughter’s wedding, Leonor is on guard; before the ceremony, she compulsively disposes of the same-size bride-and-groom atop the wedding cake by stuffing them into her mouth.
The tale is an odd one, but the filmmakers attempt to sell its strangeness for more than it is worth, subtitling the movie A Fairy Tale by Maria Luisa Bemberg, using third-person voice-over narration, and approximating the cinematic magical realism of recent films such as Like Water for Chocolate. These trappings of fantasy do a disservice to Talk‘s simple depiction of a mother’s denial. In fact, the only element of the story that requires the suspension of disbelief is its suggestion that Charlotte’s powers of observation don’t alert her to the difference between herself and other people. But this incongruity is clearly intentional: It has a direct bearing on the film’s dominant metaphor, which posits the town as a sort of extended dysfunctional family in which members tacitly agree to make uncomfortable issues go away by not mentioning them.
All the while, of course, Talk‘s tension is supplied by Charlotte’s ignorance. Her situation is akin to that of an adopted child who doesn’t yet know she was adopted, and the film is in no hurry to expose Leonor’s deception. While this generates considerable suspense, it also makes for a good deal of slack time, since the progress of Ludovico and Charlotte’s courtship is not at all convincing. (Talk is mostly about Leonor’s actions and reactions, and her character is the only one in the movie that is thoroughly fleshed out.) The film does make its point—which turns out to be about the necessity of respecting rather than denying differences—with surprising effectiveness, but not until the very, very last minute, in a dramatic closing scene.
In its own gentle way, Talk is an extremely preachy film. An allegory about acceptance, the film ends with a none-too-subtle warning against misguided efforts like Leonor’s. The lifelong fiction that she has sustained is not that her daughter is “normal,” but that the subterfuge is on Charlotte’s behalf rather than her own. (Leonor’s initial assumption that Ludovico wants to marry her, as well as a shocking faux pas at her daughter’s wedding, reveal that she herself holds the same views from which she strives to protect Charlotte.) After all, as is demonstrated by several quaintly bawdy scenes—Ludovico arguing over a prostitute in line at the bordello with the town’s mayor, the local priest bedding down with a comely widow, etc.—their town is actually tolerant of many things. Charlotte’s inevitable act of recognition has obvious parallels in issues as political as the gay pride movement and circumstances as universal as the onset of adolescence—anything involving the relief of finding that there are others like yourself. The only way to keep your children, the film argues, is to celebrate or at least respect their differences.