Summertime, 1955, directed by David Lean, screenplay by H. E. Bates and David Lean, based on the play The Time of the Cuckoo by Arthur Laurents.
At a time when anything European is held up for scorn by the right wing, it's salutory to remember the place Europe once held in the American imagination. Summertime is the zenith of romanticized views of Europe. Or, I should say, a very 1950s way of romanticizing Europeans. It's not the "so cultured! so bored with life! so existential!" romantic European who dominated the 60's, but the 50's version: cultured, but not yet bored, and most of all, sensual.
Katherine Hepburn plays a retired secretary from Akron, Ohio, touring Europe for the first time; Summertime is about an affair she has with a married Italian (Renato de Rossi, played by Rossano Brazzi) while staying in Venice. I can't imagine what this was like as a play, because if you took away the lush travelogue shots of Venice, you'd be left with maybe 30 minutes of film. Those 30 minutes have their moments, but the central love story between Hepburn and Brazzi didn't really interest me. This is one of those movies where the woman says "Renato! Renato!" and it's a big plot point, which is fine for what it is, but not my kind of film.
Even if the main story left me flat, there are some great touches; Jane Rose and MacDonald Parke play an older couple on a mile-a-minute tour of Europe. Their travel agent has planned everything out for them, including an hour of "I. A." (Independent Activity) each day. They're amusingly gauche; MacDonald Parke turns down a drink, saying, within earshot of his Italian hostess, "I'd like to, but this wop food has ruined my digestion." Later, he marvels at the Academy of Venice: "Pictures! Thousands and thousands of pictures. All of them done by hand!" The ugly American is a staple of this sort of film, of course, but these two are a cut above, not least because they're genuinely charming and not unsympathetic. This sort of character is usually only an object of scorn, but Summertime gives them at least a little breathing room.
The movie also succeeded in making me miss Italy; Venice has never looked better. And Lean doesn't have any qualms about shooting the whole thing like it was being made for the tourist board; he has a lot of shots of Venetian landmarks that have nothing to do with the story. Is a character walking into the Piazza San Marco? That's enough to motivate two minutes of basically static shots of architectural details of the palazzo ducale. I'll admit it; when I was there I shot a whole roll of film of the same building, and it fits the story to give in to that impulse and shoot it like a tourist (in fact, Katherine Hepburn carries an 8mm movie camera with her throughout the first half of the film). Although I enjoyed seeing the city again, I prefer a more economical style of directing; with movies like this, people talk about the setting like it's a character. It's not.
This is also the first movie I've seen that unironically cuts from two characters embracing to fireworks going off in the background. No kidding; I always thought that was more of a theoretical cliché than something that ever really happened. And yes, Brazzi runs after Hepburn's train as it leaves the station. He doesn't catch it, though. And Hepburn leaves him, goes back to the states. So in that sense, Summertime is not as hackneyed as it could have been. And Hepburn's performance, especially towards the beginning, is very good; they get exactly right what it feels like to be alone in a city you don't know. Venice was that way for me.