Earlier this year, when Olivia de Havilland passed away, someone I know was reminiscing about her films and mentioned Light in the Piazza as being a particular favourite. I had never even heard of Light in the Piazza, let alone anything else, so I decided to have a look. It did turn out to be a mostly enjoyable film, but I didn’t find it worthy of being a tribute to Olivia de Havilland (what I reviewed instead as a tribute was this).
But Light in the Piazza is worth talking about, because it’s an unusual film. Unusual in its subject matter, and unusual in the fact that its leading lady acts her age: Olivia de Havilland was in her mid-forties when she acted as Meg Johnson, and she brings to the role all her wealth of experience.
The story begins in Florence, where Meg and her daughter Clara (Yvette Mimieux) are tourists. They wander through a piazza, Meg reading from a guide book, ordering orangeade for Clara and Cinzano for herself when they sit down at a cafe. Clara is bubbly and irrepressible, somewhat too high-spirited, it seems.
And suddenly, on a whim, she races off into the middle of the piazza, among the pigeons and the passersby. Her hat flies off, carried by the wind, and a young man (George Hamilton) runs after it, fetching it for Clara. He is completely besotted by her, and comes over to their table.
He introduces himself: his name is Fabrizio Naccarelli. He offers to buy their drinks for them, he offers lunch, he makes it painfully obvious that he will do anything to be given the privilege of spending more time with Clara. Meg puts him down politely, making excuses: they have other appointments to keep, they must get back to their hotel, etc.
But, over the next few days, Fabrizio Naccarelli makes it clear he’s not taking no for an answer. He haunts them. He ‘coincidentally’ runs into them at tourist sights (Meg doesn’t know, but Fabrizio has enlisted the clerk at the front desk of their hotel, and is getting a daily itinerary for Meg and Clara from him). He offers to teach Clara Italian when Meg says they’re getting late for Clara’s Italian class. He is persistent to the point of being irritating.
Clara is very happy. She likes Fabrizio, and protests vociferously when Meg refers to him as a stranger. She’s spoken to him twice! Meg does all she can to nip this relationship in the bud, but it’s distressing for her: both Clara and Fabrizio seem determined to meet.
Why this is a problem is revealed soon after their very first meeting at the piazza. That evening, back in their hotel room, Meg and Clara receive Mrs Hawtree (Isabel Dean), an Englishwoman who is to teach Clara Italian. When Meg compliments Mrs Hawtree on her brooch, Clara ingenuously asks her mother (in front of Mrs Hawtree) why she did that when this same brooch had drawn from her the remark that she wouldn’t be caught dead in it…?
Meg sends Clara off on some pretext and draws Mrs Hawtree out into the balcony for a drink. And there, she tells Mrs Hawtree the truth. When Clara was ten years old, she’d had an accident while horse-riding. She struck her head hard, and was unconscious for four days. They hadn’t thought she’d survive, but she did. The sad part is, Clara may now look completely healthy, but she has the mind of a ten year old. A twenty-six year old woman, beautiful and vibrant, but with the mind of a child.
Mrs Hawtree is sympathetic, and understands the dilemma Meg is in, the strain on her as a mother to protect Clara. Meg knows that Clara, innocent and naive in the way of children, knows nothing of the relationship between men and women, and that can get her into deep trouble if Meg is not there to guard her.
A couple of days later, Meg, Clara and Mrs Hawtree are at the hotel pool when Fabrizio (unsurprisingly by now) also puts in an appearance, jumping into the pool and splashing Clara. Clara’s overjoyed, and they play in the pool, then follow it up by running about in the garden. Clara is laughing, laughing hysterically… Meg gets up, worried. Clara is overexcited, she tells Mrs Hawtree. She’s laughing right now, but she’ll start crying in a moment.
And sure enough, that is what happens. Clara’s hysterical laughing morphs into hyperventilation, and then into crying. But before Meg can go to her, Fabrizio reaches out, cupping her face in his hands and gently assuring her. Within moments, Clara has calmed down.
Meg is pleasantly surprised. This has never happened before, she confides in Mrs Hawtree. She has never seen anybody else able to calm Clara down so quickly. Suddenly, just like that, Meg sees a flicker of hope, a chance of something like a normal life for Clara.
But Meg, by virtue of years of experience and of truths learnt the hard way, knows that it’s not safe to jump hurriedly to conclusions or start dreaming of miracles. Even though she might crave a miracle.
So, when Fabrizio gatecrashes dinner at a restaurant and even gets his father (Rossano Brazzi) to gatecrash, Meg is not deterred. Signor Naccarelli is a suave, charming man, and Meg finds herself warming to him quickly. He also seems to like Clara a lot, and approves of Fabrizio’s fascination for the girl—but Meg is on her guard.
Dare Meg hope for something for Clara beyond a life always with her parents? Or are Meg and her husband Noel (Barry Sullivan), their marriage already under a lot of stress because of Clara, doomed to spend the rest of their lives only being parents/guardians/nurses/chaperones to their daughter?
What I liked about this film (note, spoilers ahead):
Olivia de Havilland as Meg Johnson. Meg loves Clara and it pains her to see her child possibly doomed to a life forever as a child, unable to live on her own, get married, have children (a career is never mentioned; it seems fortuitous that the Johnsons are very wealthy). So much so that Meg has devoted all her life to trying for a miracle while preparing for the worst: she zealously chaperones Clara, protects her, and yet works too to keep the child in Clara happy: by reading bedtime stories to her, by letting her eat cannelloni every day on holiday if she so wishes.
Meg walks a tightrope: people like the Naccarellis, seeing only one side of the matter, regard Meg as an overly protective, perhaps even paranoid, mother. Noel, on the other hand, is fed up of Meg’s attitude and is looking to put Clara in an institution.
How Meg manages to stay true to herself, be a good mother, and not buckle, is what makes Meg such a likeable character. She is mother to both the ten-year old that Clara really is, and the twenty-six year old whose body she inhabits. Meg mothers one, safeguards the other with wisdom, caution, wit, discipline, and a deep love… and Olivia de Havilland portrays all of these emotions beautifully. It’s not just in her interactions with Clara that Meg shines, it’s also with the others: with Mrs Hawtree, who becomes a confidant of sorts; with Fabrizio, whom she initially tries to dissuade; and most importantly, with Signor Naccarelli, whom she cannot help but be drawn to.
My love for Italy of course means that I loved the setting, the beauty of the streets and the buildings, the landscapes.
And Rossano Brazzi, an old favourite.
What I didn’t like (spoilers ahead):
The summary way in which the issue is dealt with. A young woman who has the mind of a ten-year old, and who is loved for her childlike innocence (which is how both Fabrizio and his family seem to regard Clara): all very well. But what happens later? Marriage isn’t just for a few years, for the children Meg knows Clara would love to have. What happens a few years later, when Fabrizio is older and more mature, and tires of Clara’s ingenuous behaviour? What happens when Clara, given that Meg expects she will bear children, becomes a mother and her children grow old enough to realize Mummy isn’t as mature as them? What happens in the long run, when the entire Naccarelli clan tire of Clara’s bubbliness?
… which, really, would have been all right if Meg had told the Naccarellis what was wrong, if she had confided in Signor Naccarelli. The way the film ends, I was shocked at the deception that Meg practices on these people. Yes, I can see that she is probably forced—by her fear for Clara’s future, by her belief that Fabrizio really loves Clara, and that back in the US, there is a dismal future for Clara—but all said and done, leaving the Naccarellis and Fabrizio in the dark about Clara’s condition is underhand.
Also, not the least: the portrayal of the Italians. Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I find the portrayal of the Naccarellis stereotypical. The Italians are a joyous, cheerful and lively lot, not given to convention? They will happily accept a young woman who acts at times like a child, simply because she’s so vivacious and full of life? Can the Naccarellis not see beyond the surface? Do Italians lack the depth to see beyond?
I hope I’m reading more into this than was intended, but personally, I would have liked this film a whole lot more if Meg had told Fabrizio (and perhaps his family) and he (they?) had accepted Clara as she was, nevertheless.
As it stands, a film that you should watch for Olivia de Havilland, Rossano Brazzi, and the beauty of Italy. Otherwise, it’s a little problematic.