It was in the woods near Halicarnassus that Hermaphroditus fatefully encountered the nymph Salmacis. Resting in her pool, she was overcome with lust for the beautiful boy and tried unsuccessfully to seduce him. Later, Hermaphroditus, finding himself alone, decided to take a bath. Spotting her chance, Salmacis dove in with him, wrapping herself around the struggling boy. In ecstasy she yelled “Gods! May we never part!” Gods were paying attention, fusing male and female bodies into one form.
It’s in this pool that we meet the nineteen year old Arianna (Ondina Quatri). Worried that she hasn’t menstruated or developed breasts, she’s been on hormone therapy, resulting in small breasts growing but with few other signs of puberty. Worryingly, she also hasn’t felt any sexual pleasure – both masturbation and experiments with boys leaving her unfulfilled. Plus, there’s that mysterious scar above her genitals that her parents assure her is from a childhood hernia operation.
You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to work out where this one is going. Arianna is intersex: born with both male and female sexual characteristics. Her parents, fearing that she’d be a subject of mockery, surgically castrated her at three years old and raised her as a girl. Arianna doesn’t know any of this: her gynaecologist is a friend of her father and everyone who knows is sworn to secrecy. After several unsuccessful attempts at sex, she resolves to get a second opinion, and so the whole ball of string unravels.
Originally conceived as a documentary, Arianna’s tale is sadly not uncommon in the intersex community. As little as a decade ago, doctors believed that intersex babies should be assigned a gender at birth to prevent later social complications. Some intersex babies assigned the female gender at birth struggled with attraction to women and traditionally masculine compulsions. Some, like Arianna, identify as their assigned gender yet encounter psychological and medical problems as they hit puberty.
It’s a thorny issue, relevant not only to intersex people, but also to the trans community and with wider implications for gender psychology. Arianna does a commendably good job in approaching the subject, managing to be intimate with being exploitative, comprehensive without being sensationalist and most importantly, utterly empathetic.
Though shot on a low budget, first-time director Carlo Lavagne (who previously worked in fashion advertising) takes advantage of some picturesque Italian scenery, capturing a suitable sumptuous tangle of greenery that perfectly suited for a tale of sexual discovery. His lens roves over water-creased rocks, shimmering seas and into strangely mysterious milky pools. He takes a particular interest in a gigantic mossy canyon – a bit on the nose in terms of yonic imagery, but hey, it works.
For all this scenic loveliness, the most beautiful aspect of Arianna is its astonishing lead actor, Ondina Quatri. Given the narrative, it’s crucial that the lead possess a slightly mysterious androgyny. Indeed, lack of luck in finding a suitable actor to play the role nearly derailed the entire project. Incredibly, Quatri was first brought to Lavagna as a daughter of the producer’s friend.
Despite having no previous acting experience or even any ambition to ever perform on screen, Quatri is wonderful. Much of the emotional whack of the film is delivered in her stunningly iridescent eyes, which feel as if they’re boring holes right through you. Her face has a classical beauty; the kind of proportions you’d normally see on an Ancient Greek bust or staring out of a Renaissance painting with Mona Lisa-ish mystery.
Similarly, she deals with the intimacy and eroticism of the role with natural grace. Large portions are spent with her naked or topless, situations that you’d think would make any actor feel a bit awkward. Not Quatri – who in a post-screening interview explained that she simply didn’t mind being naked in front of the camera. It’s on her shoulders that the film ultimately rests and she acquits herself marvellously, clearly and perceptively communicating the character’s neuroses.
Arianna is a purposefully scaled down, psychologically introspective drama. There’s a notable absence of melodrama, the ‘twist’ is spoiled in the opening dialogue and a lot of thought has clearly gone into the most humanistic way to depict an intersex story, but it’s a deeply touching film that deserves to be seen.
Though the restricted budget occasionally shows, Arianna is a touching, personal film that explores territory that mainstream cinema studiously avoids.