Directed by Guy Greene
Olivia de Havilland
It has the sweet lightness of a film from the 50s and had such a feel-good flavor that it could have been done by Disney. Toward the end of the 60s, it might not have been done at all because films got a bit rougher. I found it to be utterly charming while at the same time posing an interesting scenario that would make most parents question how they would handle a rather vital issue.
The issue? What is the issue? It's the story of a Winston-Salem mother and her 26-year old daughter whom we first meet in the Piazza della Signoria, the most important square in Florence, Italy. The duo has gone abroad because Clara, the daughter, apparently has acted out in a sexual way for the first time and it has scared the mother. The reason for the concern is because Clara was brain-damaged as a young child when she was grooming her pony and it kicked her in the head. Although she is beautiful and engaging, she has the mind of a 10-year old.
The situation gets worse and sometimes comical when mother and daughter meet 20-year old Fabrizio who is immediately taken with Clara and vice-versa. Mama is beside herself when the gifts start arriving at their hotel and Fabrizio seems to show up everywhere they go. Mama, and her husband back in North Carolina, have warded off problems before and Mama, at least, sees a life of devotion to her daughter but she has not reckoned on an Italian romance with a very determined boy. Adding to Mama's woes is that Fabrizio, young and impetuous, does not see Clara's condition, finding instead simply a gentle and carefree young woman.
Then Fabrizio's father comes into the picture and he not only also doesn't see anything out of the ordinary about Clara but he begins talking about marriage for the two youngsters. Mother and daughter are invited to meet Fabrizio's family and Mama is again concerned that no one has caught on to the family secret. She wants to tell them the truth but situations arise where that became an impossibility. She is, of course, concerned that the Italian family will reject Clara for their son once the truth comes out and she does not want her daughter hurt.
When a door is opened during the visit and Mama discovers Clara and Fabrizio kissing, she freaks out. This has gone too far. Instead of now telling everyone the truth, she elects to take her daughter and run off to Rome. Clara freaks out that she's to be pulled away from Fabrizio forever and makes Mama promise they will return to Florence.
In Rome Clara's father arrives and an interesting turn of events occurs. He is even more against the relationship and in fact feels that Clara should be housed in a facility that looks after people like her. Here is where Mama does her own freaking out. She will not have her daughter live in such a place. Maybe marriage to someone like Fabrizio is workable, she muses.
The gruff father, a most unloving man, points out that Clara could never handle normal household duties. Mama is quick to point out that an Italian mother-in-law would handle a very great deal, including much dealing with children and they'd have servants to handle day-to-day chores. Mama said she sees Clara having a life of putting on pretty dresses and having coffee at a cafe in the piazza. At home she would talk about dogs and cats and movie stars, subjects that seemed to greatly interest all parties.
Mama is bolstered by the fact that the two are wildly crazy about one another and that Fabrizio has a way of calming Clara when she has an occasional outburst of emotions. Yes, Mama is sure a marriage is the answer, particularly after her husband leaves Italy.
The utterly charming story by Elizabeth Spencer was turned into a rich screenplay by Julius Epstein that evoked smiles, pathos and a half dozen ways of looking into life dilemma that would challenge most thinking people.
At the heart of the film are two rich performances by the lead actresses. It was nice seeing Olivia de Havilland in a modern-day movie. I suspect she is more famous for period pieces. She delivers a rather complex performance, largely displayed via facial expressions and highly nuanced by a treasure trove of the actress' bits of business. It is one of my favorite de Havilland roles. She was beautifully costumed by Christian Dior.
Yvette Mimieux also delivers one of her best performances, perhaps her very best. She may not have ever been regarded as one of our finest actresses but I always enjoyed her and felt, as I have said about some others, that she had a true movie star presence. There was always something ethereal and child-like in her makeup and it couldn't have been better displayed than in this role of the damaged daughter. She and de Havilland play off one another so well. It was a joy to watch.
I wish I could be as joyous about the male casting. I don't think George Hamilton is the worst actor on the planet but he usually made me laugh... or maybe snicker is a better word. He seemed like a rich boy who was slumming to me. Although he and Mimieux were likely cast because they were under contract to MGM (and had costarred two years earlier in Where the Boys Are), I always (and I mean always) thought really? when I saw his name in a cast. They couldn't have gotten someone else? In this case, wasn't there a local Italian looking for work? The tanned one wasn't horrible but I couldn't stop that snickering.
Rossano Brazzi certainly qualified as a local Italian so he had that down pat. I had enjoyed three of his films a great deal... Three Coins in the Fountain, Summertime and South Pacific, but again, I think I would have continued looking for the right actor because Brazzi was rather sexless, looked too comfortable in his middle-ageness and was rather dull.
In 2003 Light in the Piazza was resurrected as a quite successful Broadway musical. The film captured the bliss of young romantic love and the love of a mother for her daughter. If there was a message, it might well have been to not waste a wish. Here, have a peek: