A few weeks ago, I spent a summer day in Venice and was reminded of what a beautiful, magical place it is (I'd spent a few days there on vacation previously). I remember thinking at the time that no matter how many photos I took, I would never be able to capture its essence--the twisting little alleys shielded by towering brick walls, the staggeringly lovely architecture scattered through piazzas, the feel of walking on water as gondolas drift by below you--Venice is about life, living, love. It didn't seem possible to me that all that could ever be effectively captured on film.
In filming SUMMERTIME, David Lean has come as close as anyone ever will to capturing the feel and atmosphere of the magical city. While watching the film for the first time, I felt almost as if I were walking through the streets of Venice myself, all the colour and noise and beauty intact. All the little things were there, the places visited, the things done (taking a water bus, or washing one's face in the springs to keep cool)... It helps that I can recognise the monuments from personal experience, of course, but the photography is so lush, and the attention to detail so great (there is one scene of several set in the Piazza San Marco in which an entire flock of pigeons take wing in the background--it is so breathtaking that one feels it must have been choreographed) that you really are taking Jane Hudson's journey with her. That, for a moment that lasts through the film, you are part of that world, part of David Lean's Venice. I only wish I had the opportunity to see this film on the big screen, to be able to experience the cinematography the way it was meant to be experienced.
The plot of the film is itself somewhat weak. Katharine Hepburn plays a lonely spinster, Jane Hudson, who has saved and saved all her life to finally make her dream trip come true. It turns out to be a dream trip in more ways than one, for she soon meets and falls in love with Renato di Rossi (Rossano Brazzi), a married shopkeeper with several children. They share a few dizzying, intimate days together, but Jane eventually has to make a choice between her heart and her mind.
A great part of the film is involved in setting up Jane as a desperately lonely figure, and therefore the love affair itself, though sweet, feels rushed through. (When intimacy *is* created, however, it is startlingly touching. Take for example the scene on the island of Burado, or when Renato buys Jane her first flower.) What makes the romance more tangible and believable to the viewer is the skill of the performers involved--you truly hurt from the aching loneliness Katharine Hepburn sneaks into every corner of her Jane Hudson, from the way she holds herself when she sits, to the slightly pained eyes and tightly crossed arms--her defences when she realises how alone she really is, even amidst the noise and bustle of the city. You feel sorry for her when she pretends that she is waiting for someone, positioning the chair just so and placing her own coffee before it, just to not appear entirely pathetic to her friends from the Penzione Fiorini. Hepburn manages to pull this off while also infusing Jane with an almost child-like desire to find a little magic for herself, a miracle in the form of a summer romance.
Rossano Brazzi too is excellent at walking that fine line between charm and smarm, because you never really know whether his intentions towards Jane are good or not-largely due to the revelation regarding his status as a family man. Perhaps for this reason the romance between Jane and Renato seems a bit forced for the purposes of finishing the tale David Lean set out to tell, but there is to be no denying that Hepburn and Brazzi do have great chemistry together.
SUMMERTIME isn't the kind of movie you'd recommend to *all* of your friends and constantly badger them until they've seen it and can talk to you about it. It's the kind of film you tell a select few people about, people you feel will appreciate it and understand it, and will connect with it like you do. That, perhaps, is its own special little magic.