Adriana Floridia is a member of the second annual Locarno Critics Academy. You can follow her on Twitter at @adrifloridia.
Sex is ubiquitous and exposure to it via media or otherwise is a constant. One area of that broad and often complicated topic not as readily seen, however, is sex and disability. Two films at this year’s Locarno Film Festival did just that, offering an eye-opening perspective about love and sex for the handicapped in the film Gabrielle and the journey to find love for an autistic man in The Special Need. Both films are extremely touching, and provide a look at sexuality that is far more rooted in the need to love and be loved than most other films could ever achieve.
Last year I saw a film that told the true story of Mark O’Brien, a man with an iron lung who at 38, decided he wanted to lose his virginity. He was able to do so by using the services of a sex surrogate, played by Helen Hunt who earned an Oscar nomination for her role. The Sessions was a recent pioneer, taking on this subject which can be a delicate undertaking. The film was based on an article written by Mark O’Brien himself. Director and screenwriter Ben Lewin kept the tone as honest, light and genuine as possible. The film was a great success despite its potential marketing pitfalls. Despite the inherent sensitivity, the material still made for easy viewing and engaged audiences while calling attention to an often overlooked area of sexuality. And Locarno's Gabrielle and The Special Need continued the conversation.
The Special Need
Gabrielle is a fictional story about a young woman with Williams’ syndrome who is in love with her first boyfriend and who wants to live a “normal” life. She struggles finding her own independence, and is denied by her family and friends the responsibility to take care of herself. She is frustrated with nearly everyone in her life, as they do not trust her as an adult who can function alone. Making matters worse is her boyfriend’s mother who is completely opposed to the idea of her son having sex (as he is also handicapped), as she finds it to be disgusting and immoral. She treats her child’s disability as if it had rendered him incapable of growing up.
The Special Need is a documentary film about Enea, an autistic man from Italy who is obsessed with finding a girlfriend. The film follows his struggles in interacting with women, and eventually he and his friends take to the road to find someone for Enea to sleep with. They land upon an institution that has sex psychologists, who work with Enea to allow him to experience intimacy with a woman. This film in particular is very reminiscent of The Sessions, which has the same true story of sex surrogacy and sex therapists. The main difference in the two films is that Enea is autistic, where Mark O’Brien had polio and had more of an issue with the physicality of sex.
All three of these films delve into sexual subject matter by giving a unique twist to human carnal desire beyond those typically and easily seen in movies, advertisement, television and beyond. The essential problem is the lack of love and the need for love that every person, able or disabled, experience. There is already a huge cloud of ignorance towards disability by society, and these films - hopefully - serve as conduits for greater understanding and acceptance. The discussion of sex and disability, as it is depicted in these films, further projects the fact that a person is not defined by their mental or physical struggles, and that the human longing and desire for love is universal.