The Special Need Image

In the Italian documentary The Special Need a 29 year old virgin autistic man, Enea, talks about romantic love non-stop, pines over women in fashion magazines, and is fixated on who his lady will be one day. Enea is high functioning, gregarious, and has a sweet disposition. He’s affectionate with his friends and family.

He is completely oblivious to the fact that when he talks to women his inability to read their emotions or modulate his own means every interaction is cartoonish in its crass awkwardness. He’s loud, pushy, and doesn’t read social cues. He often has a flat affect and answers questions in a monotone without considering the impact his words might have. It’s off putting and even more awkward for the women he approaches when they realize he’s disabled. His demeanor is sometimes as a playful adult but more often that of a child in an adult body.

For all his confusion he seems resolved in his intent and desire and though he says sex, it becomes clear he means romantic love and companionship.

Enea’s friends Carlo and Alex are close and comfortable with how he is. There’s a sense that they’ve been a very long time listening to him talk about having a girlfriend someday.

Carlo is Carlo Zoratti, the filmmaker and director of the piece. Carlo provides no backstory, no narration, no setup or behind-the-scenes. He dumps the viewer unceremoniously into “Enea verite“ to be the fly on the wall as he and Alex conceive a plan to get Enea laid.

Enea agrees to this venture. He knows what it means to “put the birdie in the butterfly” in his words. They begin by speaking with the prostitutes of Bolzano where they live. Finding no luck locally (frightened that he’s autistic, they refuse to even meet him) the boys load up their van and head North into Austria to seek a salacious experience for Enea.

“They are anxious about whether he can distinguish between sex and love…”

Despite the American Pie style conceit of the premise, Carlo and Alex take the mission seriously. More perhaps even than Enea. They are anxious about whether he can distinguish between sex and love and repeat to him that they are not going to find him a girlfriend, that no one is coming home with him. He seems puzzled by this. They are sensitive to his misunderstanding and protective of him.

I was very touched by Enea. I think there’s an Enea in everyone: each of us house a creature of clumsy fiery need and unrefined id that requires love and feels entitled to it, crushed when it fails to materialize. We are all clueless and bumbling at some point and to some degree. When he is told during the trip that he will most likely not be marrying a fashion model he cries. As ridiculous an expectation as that is his reaction is genuine and will remind you when you learned what it meant that someone was “out of your league.” We forget that has to be learned.

If you travel in geeky company, you’ll know people that aren’t autistic (or probably aren’t) who have a similar unskilled social approach to Enea’s. Anyone can be a bit tone deaf to social cues or willfully dismissive of them, he’s just an extreme example. Enea compares favorably to the most awkward nerds I know. As a potential partner he has much to offer. He’s bright and upbeat, engaged in life, interesting and interested, and not a bad looking guy. His people interface is just busted. Once those around him understand that and learn to navigate how he does interact, he’s fine. He’s happy. I found myself hoping for him some version of the romance he wants.

As documentaries go this one plays dramatically. For the young filmmaker, it’s a quality effort. Between the three, much is learned on the road about love, sex, and friendship on a journey you’ll enjoy taking with them.

The Special Need  (2013) Directed by Carlo Zoratti. Written By Cosimo Bizzarri, Carlo Zoratti. Starring Carlo Zoratti, Enea Gabino, Alex Nazzi

7 out of 10

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  1. Brad Gibson says:

    Note from the reviewer: I have a friend (a mental health professional) who feels strongly that the act of filming the main character, Enea, during this trip was exploitative. She believes his autism renders him incapable of giving informed consent to be filmed. In the movie we don’t get a good sense for how disabled he is, nor do we ever see Carlo asking him if it’s OK to film.

    Also in the review I compare Enea to socially awkward people who are not disabled and that was an inappropriate parallel. I am not a mental health professional so my opinion is based on nothing more than what I saw in film with no particular scientific or medical background. It’s easy to make a mistake when your model of the world is missing key information. Your conclusions based on experience can mislead you when the truth is counter-intuitive to those experiences.

    Given all that, I’d say there is a question of exploitation hanging over the film.

    Carlo had an interesting subject in Enea and would not have a movie without his disability being a factor.
    If Enea wasn’t autistic it would have been “Three guys from Italy try to get laid.”
    Not much of a premise, might as well call it “Otherwise Known as Saturday.”

    What do you think?

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