LGBT Movies: Ernesto (1979)

An Italian boy comes of age in the year 1911. He experiments with his sexuality and wrestles with his ideals. Ernesto, based on an unfinished novel, is a chilly film. The leading man cares little for the people around him and treats them poorly. His affair with an older man never develops beyond a pornographic fantasy. Still, it’s nice to see bisexuality explored without judgement in 1979. The story makes an interesting companion piece to the 2007 novel Call Me By Your Name.

Want to know more? Then read my spoiler filled recap.

Content warning: The central relationship is between a 16-year-old and a 30-something. Italy’s age of consent is 14 and they wouldn’t criminalize same/sex behavior till 1930. As in Call Me By Your Name the affair is legal and consensual but not particularly healthy.

Act One: Discovery

Ernesto. Workman.
Michele Placido’s performance as the Workman would win him, I kid you not, the “Silver Bear Award” at Berlin’s International Film Festival.

“If the reader does not already agree that Ernesto was an idiot, he soon will. But he had his good qualities too.” ~ Umberto Saba, Ernesto.

Scene One: Warehouse. Italy, 1911.
ERNESTO (A restless teen supervisor): I brought cigars.
WORKMAN: Are you trying to seduce me, boss?
ERNESTO: Maybe. Just promise to stop if I ask.
(They have sex.)
ERNESTO: That hurt a little.
WORKMAN: Next time we’ll use cocoa butter.
ERNESTO: Next time I want to top.

Scene Two: Workday
BOSS: Ernesto, stop playing pranks and get to work.
ERNESTO: I hate this job. I want to play the violin!
BOSS: Go collect payments from my debtors.
DEBTOR: I thought you were a socialist Ernesto.
ERNESTO: Only to upset my family.  
SCHOOL CHUMS: We’ve missed you since you left school. Have you gotten laid yet?
ERNESTO: Yes… (Drinks) No… (Drinks more) SHUT UP!

Act Two: Debate

Ernesto. Mother.
Virna Lisi as Ernesto’s mother. In the book she’s described as cold but on film she provides the only moments of warmth.

Scene Three: Sexuality
(Ernesto sleeps with the Workman again. This time with cocoa butter.)
(Ernesto sleeps with a Female Sex Worker.)
(Ernesto sleeps with the Workman again.)
ERNESTO: Meh. I’m bored.
WORKMAN: Please don’t leave me.
ERNESTO: Then let me top you. Strip and lie down. Now.
(Workman strips and lies down. When he looks up, Ernesto is gone.)
WORKMAN: Son of a…

Scene Four: Workday
ERNESTO: Someday I’ll be rich and free. With a boat of my own and a hundred sailors in love with me.
BOSS: I thought you wanted to play the violin.
ERNESTO: I’ll do that too. I quit!
BOSS: You’ll be back.
ERNESTO: I can’t go back there, mama. I’ve been sleeping with a workman.
MOTHER:  He took advantage of you!?
ERNESTO: No mama. I wanted him.
MOTHER: I don’t understand.
ERNESTO: Can I have some money for a concert?

Act Three: Decisions

Ernesto. Violin.
Martin Halm’s Ernesto seduces Laura Wendel’s Rich Boy. Wendel also plays the boys Twin Sister.

Scene Five: Concert Hall
(Ernesto attends a violin concert. Imagines himself on stage.)
RICH BOY: Hello handsome. Want to teach me violin lessons?
ERNESTO: What can you pay?
(The novel ends here. The screenplay continues.)  

Scene Six: Rich Boy’s Home
(Ernesto and the Rich boy are making out.)
RICH BOY: Back off. He’s mine.
 (Twins swap clothes.)
TWINS: Which of us do you want?
ERNESTO: I don’t know.

Scene Seven: Society Party
WORKMAN: Ernesto, I had to see you.
ERNESTO: Here’s a coin. Go away.
(Workman gives the coin to a child and goes away.)
RICH TWIN SISTER: I’m going to marry Ernesto.
RICH BOY: The hell you are.
BOSS: See Ernesto? You’ll marry. You’ll settle down. And so much for freedom, socialism and the violin.
(Ernesto looks at the camera and shrugs. No joke. That’s how the film ends.)


Coming of Age

Book Cover
An English translation of the novel was released in 2017.

“Add to those pages Ernesto’s breakthrough to his true calling, and you would, in fact, have the complete story of his adolescence. Unfortunately, the author is too old, too weary and embittered to summon the strength to write all that.” ~ Umberto Saba

At the start of the film Ernesto dotes over his birds and his stamp collection. Near the end he releases the birds and throws the stamps away. He’s ready to be an adult but doesn’t know how. The novel’s Ernesto is less jaded. He’s eager to pursue his friendship with the boy he meets at the concert.

Umberto Saba wrote the novel at the age of 70 from within a mental institution. He had given up the violin but discovered a love of poetry. He had married a woman but continued to write love poems about men. He had survived the second World War but sunk into severe depression. Ernesto would prove to be his only novel. A semi-autobiographical, semi-pornographic, idealized vision of his childhood. Though he died in 1957 the novel would not be published till 1975. That a novel this controversial was filmed so soon afterwards is impressive. The film is faithful to the book, to a point, but the cynical tone is not.

Italian director Salvatore Samperi’s film had limited U.S. distribution despite winning an award at the 29th Berlin International Film Festival. The subject matter may have been too controversial for the time. I didn’t love it but was glad to learn of it.

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Ernesto Shrug
Fresh and full of life.