Best Films Set in Italy, Beginning with…
SUMMERTIME (aka, Summer Madness)
Best Romance, 1955 – 5 Stars
A very romantic film set in a very romantic city
This summer, I’m taking you to Italy… via your DVD player. There are some fabulous “vacation packages” out there, and they’re only a click away. Each one is set in a different city, and they all make you feel like you’re actually there. I’ll finish up the summer with an Italian film that I consider to be their best.
Our first stop is Venice, and the movie is Summertime, starring Katharine Hepburn, Rossano Brazzi, Isa Miranda and Darren McGavin. It is 1955, and this is David Lean’s last “little” movie, before directing such monumental classics as The Bridge Over The River Kwai, Lawrence Of Arabia, The Greatest Story Ever Told and Doctor Zhivago. But the ones preceding Summertime are no slouches either, including Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and Brief Encounter. So Summertime stands as a turning point in Lean’s career – one last summer fling before getting down to some very serious work.
Among the things I like about Summertime are how naive and vulnerable Katherine Hepburn is, how entrancingly beautiful Venice is, and how romantic the story is. Hepburn plays an American secretary named Jane Hudson, who is steeped in Midwest tradition and on the verge of becoming a spinster (something she also played one year later in The Rainmaker, with Burt Lancaster). She saves her money and finally decides to indulge her romantic notions about Venice by taking her first vacation there. Jane travels alone, and soon finds that her dreams of romance were false in light of the realities of human relationships. While the city is everything she had hoped it would be, the people turn out to be a bit too human for her Puritan sensibilities.
As she watches everyone she meets go off in pairs, she suddenly realizes how lonely she is. Then she meets Renato (Brazzi), an antique dealer with a shop on the Campo San Barnaba. Jane was hoping she would meet someone young, rich and single; instead, Renato is middle-aged, a modest shop keeper… and married. She puts up walls. But Renato confronts her, telling her that she is like a hungry child who is given ravioli to eat, but she says, no, she wants beefsteak. “My dear girl, you’re hungry. Eat the ravioli!” “I’m not that hungry,” she replies.
But Renato and Jane are irresistibly drawn to each other. When they finally get together, it is pure fireworks… literally. They have some wonderfully romantic days together – encounters that transform Jane from a pressed bundle of dried flowers to a gorgeously fragrant bouquet. After enjoying her romance with Renato for a brief time – who turns out to have been separated permanently from his wife – Jane realizes that she is being pulled into a mindset and lifestyle that are totally opposite the ones she must eventually go back to; so she must decide what to do.
As I said, this is an incredibly romantic film, because Italians are incredibly romantic people. The theme song, “Summertime in Venice,” which occurs over and over as incidental music, but also on the background track, is enough to make anyone fall in love. Add to that the wonderful locations, filmed in Technicolor, and Renato’s romantic tenacity, and you can see how Jane couldn’t resist.
But there are also little details to the story that will make you fall in love with this film. In one scene, after Jane has decided she is going to make Renato her “amico,” she goes to the Piazza San Marco, where she first saw him, hoping he will return. She saves a place at her table to make some acquaintances think she’s not alone. But when Ranato shows up, he sees the saved seat and, thinking that she’s with someone else, bids her good evening and walks on. She is so flabbergasted at her own stupidity that she sits there speechless and hurt as she watches her “amico” walk away. (It would have been considered unseemly back then for a woman to yell out after a man.) It is a very poignant scene.
Another time, Jane visits Renato’s shop in San Barnaba di Venezia, where she had earlier bought a red glass goblet, and is now hoping to find Renato there; but he is out. So she decides to use the opportunity to film his shop. As she steps backwards to get a better angle, Jane falls into the canal. Mauro (Gaetano Autiero), an Italian boy that has befriended her and is acting as her guide, rescues the camera out of her hands as she goes in. A crowd gathers around to help drag her out. Jane is mortified by what has happened, and doesn’t want Renato to know; so she has Mauro lead her off by the hand. After she’s gone, a heavy-set Italian man reenacts the episode for the crowd, falling into the canal at the end, to their delight.
This film is so intimate, you almost feel it was shot with a home movie camera, but by someone who knew what he was doing. As David Lean once said, “I’ve put more of myself in that film than in any other I’ve ever made.” You can tell. Not only is it intimate in the way the director presents his characters, it’s intimate in the way he presents the city. And it is as charming as any film you’ll ever watch.
There are other places known for their charming waterways besides just Venice. One of them is San Antonio. If you go there, you will want to spend most of your time on the River Walk. Wonderful waterside cafes amidst gigantic cedars make this a very pleasant place to dine with a friend.
Summertime was nominated for Best Actress and Best Director at the Oscars, as well as Best Film and Best Actress at BAFTA (the British film awards). It won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Director.
Everything is so natural in Summertime that it almost feels like you’re there on vacation yourself, which is one of the reasons I recommend it. You get to see a good slice of Italian life, but from a visitor’s perspective, and the extras cast seem like they’re just people going about their business. I’m sure Italians have seen so many movies made in Italy that they’re used to it by now. But it wasn’t easy getting permission to film in Venice in 1955. Venetians, especially gondolieri, thought it would disrupt the tourist trade during their busiest season; and the Vatican had restrictions on filming in front of religious shrines. So Lean had to pay off quite a few groups. In spite of their fears, tourism to Venice doubled after the film’s release.
Once Summertime was in the can, there were other obstacles, such as the Production Code’s restrictions on showing an adulterous affair in a film. And some critics didn’t like what Lean had done to Arthur Laurent’s 1952 play, The Time Of The Cuckoo, on which it was based. (It was made into a musical in 1965 called Do I Hear A Waltz, with words and music by Richard Rogers and Stephen Sondheim.) But in spite of all this, Lean turned in a knock-out film that he considered his personal favorite. That film caused him to fall in love with Venice, permanently. I think it will do the same for you.
Waitsel Smith, June 6, 2010
For more movie reviews, go to Movies by Decade, my movie review website.
Text © 2010 Waitsel Smith. Images © 1955 Criteron. All Rights Reserved.