Hear Me Out: Richard Goldstein’s Pan of “Call Me by Your Name”

Richard Goldstein’s original critique of Call Me by Your Name began with a crucial factual error regarding the protagonists’ ages: The visiting grad student Oliver is 24 and the resident son Elio is 17, there being no “decade” difference between the two. I myself in 1976, at age 24 while living in Rome, became romantically involved with an 18-year-old who sought the connection (he and I still close friends) and then (in 1980) at age 28 in NYC fell for a 22 year-old, (we now together 37 years). Goldstein’s updated correction misstates the age difference again, asserting Oliver is in his “mid 20s.” Almost but not quite.

As a college history professor I’ve as a matter of principle and sheer lack of — by definition — erotic interest never engaged in any activity or advocacy of what has historically been excused as “pedagogical eros.” By definition my students are not erotically interesting to me and I condemn any instructor for any such contact — even if initiated by the student — as a violation of university life and teacher/student trust.

Further, without offering a strict age guideline it seems reasonable to ask older men to not go forward in erotic relationships sought by younger guys going on a decade or more age difference.

But it can happen. And who are we to judge? At age 65 I find plenty of guys half my age sexy and smart. But that does not mean I ought to pursue — for my sake or theirs — a romantic relationship.

Call Me by Your Name does not violate any of these principles, even as it does show the danger of being young and gay, falling for an even slightly older guy. The film in fact beautifully shows the sorrow which can ensue.

But none of this lyrical story has anything to do with sexual predation, straight or gay, as Goldstein seems to have suggested, given also Elio’s mother’s knowing pat on his head in the car returning home from his last trip with Oliver, and the final confessional soliloquy of Elio’s father, affirming what his son has bravely done and more than hinting at his own past of “lost chances not taken.” I would further point out that even Goldstein’s updated comment seems odd as in “alluring tale of lust,” since I saw this story as a “cautionary tale of mutual seduction” with — as noted — not a happy, even if wisdom-inducing, ending.

It should also be noted that alongside the coming-of-age Bildungsroman sexual awakening of the younger Elio, there is his simultaneous embrace of being a Jew against his pre-Oliver (who arrives wearing a Star of David necklace) status of being — as his mother is said to have told him they are — “discreet Jews.” This is a very important binary part of the plot and very much in line with that region of Northern Italy’s Jewish secular history, best described in the novels of Giorgio Bassani, most famously in The Garden of the Finzi-Contini. It’s the same Italian Jewish world from which emerged Primo Levi, Carlo Levi, Natalia Ginzburg, and her son the historian Carlo Ginzburg, as well as the martyred fratelli Rosselli, as depicted in Moravia’s novel/Bertolucci’s film “The Conformist.” In fact — spoiler alert — Call Me by Your Name ends with Elio as self-accepting gay and despondent while in the background of a snowy winter’s day preparations are being made for Chanukah.

I would add that the movie is also a real treat for Italian history buffs. It takes in that 1980s era of corrupt, pseudo-Socialist Bettino Craxi and the MSI —Italian Social Movement — successors to Fascists. (The two lovers pass by political posters as they bike around town.)  And then there’s the hilarious scene of animated southern Italians visiting their “restrained” northern friends over lunch. There is so much more to this movie than what Goldstein honed in on, ruled perhaps by the “Me Too/Time’s Up” exigencies of our here and now.