Classical music is a bearing of the soul. The wordlessness of instrumental classical pieces invites the listener to paint her own perspective and experience onto the bones of these pieces. The most effective of these compositions dare the listener to peer inside her own spirit and interact with those emotions portrayed by the music. This is why classical music has endured. It interacts not with a particular moment in time, but instead with the timeless human soul. While composers continue to make different forms and styles of instrumental classical music, performers and audiences still appreciate that which has survived the centuries before us. Modern composers exist in the context and legacy of generations of musical geniuses who understood how to hold a soul naked before the light and make the listener reckon with it. Call Me by Your Name (directed by Luca Guadagnino, 2017) embraces the breadth of classical music, including pieces from its rich history and from its exciting present. The soundtrack of this deeply emotional film spans not only time but place as well, including works of composers from Japan, Italy, France, Germany, and America. As such, the soundtrack mirrors two large facets of the film: the transcendence of love and sensuality and the celebration of multiculturalism not only among nations but also within oneself.
This multiculturalism is inherent in a film following a Jewish American exchange student studying in Italy with a French-Italian professor of archeology. It is only fitting that the soundtrack incorporates composers from a wide range of nationalities. It is worth noting that many of these composers hailed from nations represented in the film (Erik Satie and Maurice Ravel from France, John Adams from America, Johann Sebastian Bach from Germany, etc.). This is true not only of the classical pieces but also of the few pop songs interspersed between them. These songs enter the film primarily when they occur diegetically (within the world of the characters), such as when Elio turns on the radio or when someone plays music for a party. The presence of these songs situates the audience more deeply in the film’s setting. We are not watching a movie about Italy. We are in Italy. It is the ‘80s. We hear Ivano Fossati (Italian pop singer) on the radio and we dance and we want to read French philosophy and German poetry and we swim in the lake and it is cold and magnificent. The classical music and occasional pop songs work together to fuel these desires. The soundtrack as a whole builds an emotional and physical world for the audience to more deeply connect with the visual world presented on the screen.
Call Me by Your Name is not as much about the beauty of appreciating other cultures as it is about the fact that romance exits outside of our expectations. Its soundtrack nudges the audience to experience this truth on a personal level by stirring up feelings of wistfulness and vulnerability in the listener to mirror the unexpected sensations of the characters in the film. This not only occurs in the background music, but also in the music played by the character Elio for his family or for Oliver. One of the first instances of Oliver and Elio bonding occurs when Elio plays a Bach piece and Oliver asks about it. They do not yet feel comfortable expressing their authentic selves to one another, but when Elio performs for Oliver he is showing Oliver a passionate and playful part of himself. They are frightened of what their words might mean and so they cannot speak them yet. The piano breaks the silence and polite disconnectedness between them. Elio plays for himself. Then he plays for Oliver. Elio uses music to open a space for them to feel something together. It is beautiful. It is the backbone of the film.
Call Me by Your Name is a story about feeling and family and desire. It reminds us that feeling is a gift, that pain is an invitation to appreciate the rawness and depth of our hearts, and that music is a means of expressing those things we cannot yet speak. There are so many ways to become connected and disconnected. This film and its soundtrack remind us that classical music is, for some people, a powerful tool for discovering and building connection with someone. It is also a powerful tool for connecting with ourselves.