Monday, June 3, 2019
Guy Green | Light in the Piazza
neither circle nor square
by Douglas Messerli
Julius J. Epstein (screenplay, based on the fiction by Elizabeth Spencer), Guy Green (director) Light in the Piazza / 1962
Yesterday afternoon, for the 3rd or 4th time, I again saw on the TCM television channel, Guy Green’s 1962 film, Light in the Piazza, based on the short novel by Elizabeth Spencer. One of my favorite film guides, Time Out Film, described it as “a terrible film.”
Now having seen it several times, and having experienced the enlightened musical by Craig Lucas and Adam Guttel, I’m not at all sure I’d totally agree.
True that the late career actress Olivia de Havilland seems to be more of menace than the loving, almost over-doting mother she is supposed to be. It’s almost as if she got a bit confused and played a version of Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte a couple of years before it’s premier. And Rossano Brazzi has perhaps already seduced too many American innocents such as Katherine Hepburn in Summertime and Jean Peters, before that film, in Three Coins in the Fountain. And despite his generally credible performance as a young wealthy Italian, George Hamilton, is still a bit of a stretch. And I must admit, I find it really difficult to believe the often overwrought Yvette Mimieux is truly intellectually challenged, let alone mentally retarded.
Yet, like Hepburn’s Summertime one is seduced by the Italian (in this case Florence landscape), as are the characters. The young Clara Johnson, despite her stated role as a mentally challenged young girl of 26 is absolutely in love in life, ready to learn a new language (and far more successfully than I might have done at that age), and who falls in love, most naturally, with an equally youthful 23-year-old (and perhaps just as mentally challenged) youg Italian, Fabrizio Naccarelli. There is absolutely no way to part them, even though both Meg Johnson and Signor Naccarelli at various junctures attempt to.
These young people, as confused, bewitched, and bewildered as all young people in love, simply cannot keep their hands off of one another. And their love infuses them with a power that no matter how protective either of their families are, destined for one another; despite even a devious detour to Rome, where Meg meets up with her delinquent business husband, Noel (Barry Sullivan), determined to derail any future for his daughter—and one might argue his wife—no one, not even their over-protective parents, can stop it.
Even Meg perceives that in a loving Italian family, where her daughter might be embedded in familial affection, ignoring her eternally young enthusiasms, she might be protected and loved. And, it appears that her would-be lover Fabrizio is just as innocent and lost in into a romantic world of which he has no knowledge of reality. But then, isn’t that what love is truly all about? Young people in love are all Claras and Fabrizios, having absolutely no idea of where are going given their own lack of mental facilities. The “mental retardancy” of which the film hints is always what love is about.
Although this film doesn’t explore it as it should, Clara’s mother Meg is just as confused and off-kilter as her young daughter is. After all, Brazzi has always stirred up deep emotions in unloved older women (and not so older) that takes them to places they might never have imagined. Unfortunately, de Havilland doesn’t quite go there. Her stirred-up emotions goes no further than an argument with her unloving husband that it might be better to protect her daughter by giving her hand in marriage than speaking the truth about her mental inabilities.
The truly wonderful thing about this film is that we never for a moment really believe that Clara is truly incompetent. She learns languages, she enthusiastically embraces love; what can be wrong with her? The only problem that Italians can conceive is that she is older than they thought. At 26 is she a good catch for their 20 (actually 23)-year old son?
Even the temporarily outraged Signor Naccarelli perceives that they are destined to be together, she eternally young and innocent to receive the equally innocent love of his younger son.
This is not a film about a mentally-retarded girl quickly married off to a wealthy Italian family, but the story about all of youthful love, of how confusing and utterly astounding love really is. No, this is not a “terrible movie,” unless you read it quite literally. This is a film about children finding their way through the maze of definitions, of strictures, wrong perceptions, and labels put upon them by the equally confused adults around them. In their love perhaps the adults might find a way to redeem their own lives.
In the end, the piazza is neither quite a circle nor a square, but an arcaded gallery where love can find cover.
Los Angeles, June 3, 2019
Reprinted from World Cinema Review (June 2019).