Blog Directory CineVerse: When in Venice, do as the Venetians do

When in Venice, do as the Venetians do

Monday, May 10, 2021

Katharine Hepburn fans smitten with her acting prowess would probably enjoy watching her read from the phone book. Fortunately, she’s asked to do a lot more in David Lean’s Summertime, a 1955 romance that plays like a travelogue for a bucket list trip to Italy. In fact, Hepburn is present in virtually every scene of this movie, although she accomplishes much with simple body language instead of talky exposition on the joys and laments of love.

Our CineVerse group took a trip to Venice, the waterlogged land of gondolas and gothic architecture, this past week to explore Summertime (even though we are still firmly fixed in the spring season) and came away with several suppositions (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). Here’s a recap of our Q&A conversation.

What did you find different, unexpected, memorable, or curious about Summertime?

  • It’s directed by David Lean, the man known for major epics to come afterward like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and A Passage to India, yet this is a simpler, more intimate film with a very small cast. However, Lean demonstrated 10 years earlier with his direction of Brief Encounter that he was a master of the romantic drama. He once remarked that this was his favorite of all of his films.
  • The movie and your estimation of it depends a great deal on two factors:
    1. The performance of Katharine Hepburn, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Jane. Rarely has Hepburn been better, accomplishing so much with nonverbal acting and moments of quiet reflectivity.
    2. Shooting on location in Venice, which serves as a picturesque character unto itself and undoubtedly swayed countless Americans to visit Italy and Europe.
  • For a romance picture, this movie strays from formula: First, Hepburn was around age 48 at the time of this filming, long past her youthful attractive prime; Jane is not given a romantic interest until the second half of the film (when Renato is finally introduced); her unexplained decision to depart for home occurs abruptly, bringing the story to a sudden, quick conclusion that can feel unleavened and too ambiguous and bittersweet for many viewers’ tastes; and Renato, though he predictably chases her down before her train pulls away, doesn’t succeed in handing her his gift or convincing her to return to him.
  • This film would’ve been controversial and groundbreaking for a mid-1950s movie watched by American audiences.
    • Ponder that the story depicts its two infidelities – one involving Renato and Jane, the other involving Eddie (the married artist) and a mistress – that are not punished.
    • Additionally, it was rare then, as it is now, to place a middle-aged woman at the center of a steamy film romance.
    • Also, ruminate on the film’s most controversial line, which was censored in America at the time due to its suggestiveness: “You are a hungry child who is given ravioli to eat. ‘No,’ you say, ‘I want beefsteak.’ My dear girl, you are hungry. Eat the ravioli.”

Themes crafted into Summertime

  • American versus European morals and sensibilities. The British Film Institute wrote: “The theme here is a traditional one: New World Puritanism confronts European opportunism; the innocent American surrenders to the charm and experience of the Old World, and at the same time retreats from its implications of corruption.”
  • “Two is the loveliest number in the world” – which Jane says aloud at one point in the movie. Consider how lonely and unappreciated she is before she meets Renato.
  • Every person, no matter how plain, unglamorous or common, is a unique vessel for untapped love.
  • Interestingly, the red goblet Jane treasures lacks a duplicate to make it a pair; Jane is like that red goblet, but she quickly loses interest in finding a match for it when she learns how common and relatively valueless these red goblets are—which makes her distrust Renato, who built up the goblet’s significance and rarity in her own mind.
  • Similarly, Jane chooses a relatively un-ostentatious flower for Renato to buy her. When she loses the flower, Renato tries hard to get it back, despite its practical insignificance, and even chases after her at the train station with a substitute similar flower at the end of the story, suggesting that Jane is a delicate, precious thing that’s hard to hold onto.

Similar films

  • Brief Encounter
  • Before Sunrise
  • Now, Voyager
  • To Catch a Thief (which also features a sexually suggestive fireworks scene following passionate kissing)
  • Rome Adventure
  • Summer of ’42
  • Light in the Piazza
  • A Certain Smile
  • Three Coins in the Fountain

Other works by David Lean

  • Brief Encounter
  • Oliver Twist
  • Great Expectations
  • Hobson’s Choice
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • Lawrence of Arabia
  • Doctor Zhivago

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