New Streaming Releases: Ode to Passion (2020) - Reviewed

Image - Jack Danini Productions

It is, admittedly, difficult to create something that doesn’t feel like it’s been done a thousand times already. True creative innovation often feels like an insurmountable task, with so many stories having been told in so many different ways across the centuries – and, indeed, Jack Danini’s Ode to Passion tries very hard to tell a simple story in a unique voice. Absent from the roster for the Queen’s World Festival as it went digital in March, it will premiere July 10th on Amazon Prime Video.

The story itself is that of a sensitive young dreamer named Michael (Giuseppe Bausilio) who falls in love with an exciting and beautiful girl named Sarah (Julia Nightingale), but she’s a drinker and an occasional cocaine user, which clashes with Michael’s vision of his perfect woman. The film is a musical romantic drama, a self-proclaimed “rock opera” that has its characters speaking in between songs with rhyming verse. It's a gimmick that seems clever in theory, but ultimately makes the dialogue stilted and affected. It distances the audience from the main characters and their relationship, and frankly becomes irritating after only a few minutes. There are moments in the beginning wherein it appears to be staged as a framing device, but as it continues on into the body of the film its charm and efficacy quickly wears off.

The sheer pretentiousness is off-putting, and it's difficult to take such a film seriously. Taken in another direction, it might have been campy and fun -- but it is neither. It takes itself extremely seriously, and as a result, is a complete mess. 

Image - Jack Danini Productions

The songs, which break up the monotony of the dialogue, are equally inane; what should breathe insight into the inner lives of these characters ends up just being more boring, shallow rhyming. Sarah and Michael are unlikeable primarily because they do not feel real. No one talks the way they do, and their love-at-first-sight charade is merely a hollow infatuation, at best. It's every incel's fantasy -- and instead of fleshing out the love that supposedly is beginning to bloom, it's a tableaux of tiresome clich├ęs and stereotypical character beats that don't do much to drive the minimally interesting story forward. As a result, the performances feel wooden and unrealistic -- it is difficult to imagine two people being so completely naive, and even more difficult to care about them.

From the outset, it’s clear we are meant to see everything through the lens of Michael’s genuinely good, if mostly misguided, heart, and it’s a bit sickening to watch him framing Sarah in his mind as a troubled addict he must “save”, when she is in fact just a little bit of a party girl. Nowhere in the narrative does she truly seem to be an actual alcoholic; she is young and happy, and wants to have fun and be free. Michael infantilizes her desires and, when she goes out for a girls’ night with her friend Alexa (Victoria Meade), he throws himself into a part of her world about which he knows nothing – and yet for which seems to believe he is the sole panacea. He treats her like some innocent angel being corrupted by a "bad girl" friend, and erases what little personality she's permitted herself in deciding he knows her better. For her part, Sarah tries to assert her true feelings and she is gaslit by Michael's admonishments and his bizarre treatment of her perfectly normal desires to let go and define herself by her youth and experimentation for his own ideas of who she is as a person. He sees her as an extension of his fantasies -- so her scant humanity, when he is faced with it, upsets him.

Image - Jack Danini Productions
And that is the crux of the problem with this film. Because we are meant to side with Michael, his over-the-top martyr complex and “good, devout Catholic boy” demeanor are framed as the healthier of the two outlooks, but his view of who Sarah should not only be, but desire to be, are guided by an unwavering myopic morality. Michael is rightfully chastised for his toxic views on love by more than one character, but the film still expects us to root for the outcome he wants. Unfortunately, this downtrodden, lovable underdog doesn't learn anything, or end with any discernible growth -- not really. And therein lies the rub.

Any truly effective story, in any medium, will give its characters movement and growth. It will not pit them against each other in a black-and-white, all-or-nothing world in which the only thing that “really” matters is Love with a capital L. Ode to Passion actually feels more like an Ode to Relationships – any character who has a dream outside of that socially-accepted milestone is painted as foolish, irresponsible, or wicked. Once the characters believe they’ve found that Love, they suddenly have a brand-new dream, and everything they hoped for before was simply brushed aside like breadcrumbs on the path toward the person who can fill all the holes in their hearts. It’s patently unrealistic, and it robs every character in the film of their humanity, as it erases all the grey areas in their lives to manipulate the viewer into rooting for a character who himself is morally ambiguous. On the “Dudley Do-Right to Dick Dastardly” sliding scale, he’s probably closer to Muttley than to Roger Ramjet; still, his issues with control, possessiveness and use of emotional blackmail are played as innocence, naivety, and a “resolute belief” in true love.

There is certainly nothing wrong with experimentation with form, but in this particular case and with this particular story, the verse dialogue and repetitive songs are more a distraction than a fun narrative device. It is unfortunate, as after awhile, even the performers began to seem disaffected and bored. The viewer deserves better, and so do the story’s characters.

--Dana Culling