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    Vincenzo Amato and Jessica Whitney Gould. in Once We Were Strangers
    Vincenzo Amato and Jessica Whitney Gould.

    Strangers in a strange land

    A gray, blustery New York fights two couples' every effort to fall in love in the thoroughly charming anti-romance romance "Once We Were Strangers."


    The swarthy, headstrong, passionate Antonio is about to sweep Ellen off her feet because she reminds him of the Virgin Mary — and he means that in the sexiest possible way. They will go "al mare" ("to the sea"), announces the dashing Italian as he drives her off in his convertible from downtown New York for a romantic walk on the beach.

    Written and directed by: Emanuele Crialese.
    Cast: Vincenzo Amato, Jessica Whitney Gould, Anjalee Deshpande, Ajay Nidu.
    Cinematography: Sam Selva.
    Williamsburg Brooklyn Film Festival 2000
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  • Standard romance-novel stuff? Not exactly. When they get to the shore, they hate it. And Ellen, who finds Antonio irritating anyway, is a practical, down-to-earth type who's not looking for any rash, whirlwind romance. ("You are beautiful!" says he. "You're an idiot," says she.) If these two are made for each other — and that's far from evident — it's going to take something other than a dime-novel setting to make it happen.

    And that's a lucky thing, because around the film's four main characters is a concrete, workaday New York, not the electric city of Spike Lee or the dramatic city of Woody Allen. It seems to be summer, but the sky is sidewalk-gray and rainstorms blow in on the whipping wind. What's nice about this approach is that if there's going to be any spark between the characters, it's going to come from them alone, not from the birds chirping in Central Park or the sand between their toes. At one point the outside world is doing so little for them that they block it out ("Out there it's horrible," says she) so they can gaze at each other in their own tiny but momentarily perfect two-person space.

    Ajay Nidu and Anjalee Deshpande. in Once We Were Strangers  
    Ajay Nidu and Anjalee Deshpande.
    A side plot throws together Antonio's short, unassuming, Indian-born friend Apu with a lovely woman who seems to be more than he deserves and is horrified by his dank basement apartment. While this relationship explores the character of impoverished immigrants struggling to adapt to their new country, it also has something in common with the main plot — love has to bloom because of what's between the people involved and not because of their florid surroundings.

    If this sounds like an unromantic romance picture, it's not at all. The characters are full of charm, the story is full of clever details, and the actors — you might fall for them yourself. But do they find love? Hmmm, good question.

    MARCH 9, 2000

    Reader comments on Once We Were Strangers:

  • [no subject]   from , Sep 1, 2001
  • dvd?   from steve, Jan 25, 2005
  • I think I'm in this movie   from Robert Laws, Dec 6, 2006

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