I first became acquainted with Light in the Piazza’s story in college, when a professor had us read When Madeline Was Young by Jane Hamilton. Hamilton wrote in her introduction that she was inspired by Elizabeth Spencer’s original story, and both share at their center not so much a disabled woman's struggles, but a family member who must adjust expectations and perceptions to make life adaptable for the brain-damaged girl.
Later I gained a passing knowledge of the musical, though I have as yet to read the book. However, seeing as I’m me and I like moving pictures of the older variety, I was happy enough recently when I was finally the given the chance to watch the 1962 movie starring Olivia de Havilland and Yvette Mimieux as the mother and the girl, respectively.
I’ve already given away the key plot point that we figure out only about ten minutes in, when Meg Johnson (de Havilland) informs her daughter's tutor Miss Hawtree (Isabel Dean in a thankless role that exists only for exposition) that the beautiful Clara (Mimieux) suffered an accident as a child and therefore has the mental age of a child of ten (that’s what de Havilland tells us, anyways, but Clara’s behavior seems younger than ten to me. Then again, I don’t know kids good).
Clara and her understandably protective mother are on vacation in Florence, Italy. There they encounter Fabrizio Naccarelli, a young Italian man played by a very young and Warren Beattyish George Hamilton—and keep encountering him, as he has his sights set on the lovely, charmingly childlike Clara. Whether because of the language barrier or cultural differences, neither Fabrizio nor his extended family recognizes Clara’s impairment, seeing only an angelically simple girl.
Meanwhile, Meg’s anxiety and indecisiveness about the proper way to handle this grows and grows.
For such a tense situation, there is surprisingly little pay-off sometimes. Situations are set-up but just sort of peter out without the proper reactions you expect. For example, when she first meets Fabrizio's family, Clara acts a little too excited about the Nacarrellis' dog, then chases after it when it leaves the room. The family somehow doesn't find this odd but instead "delightful," especially since she's then charmingly enchanted by a painting of Baby Jesus. They then laugh off her request for a baby brother from her mother, and apparently ignore the straight face Clara wears when she asks this. If director Guy Green was aiming for the realism of unfulfilled tension—the sort of tension that builds and builds without ever exploding, just always simmering beneath the surface—I think he partly went around it the wrong way. He shifted too much of the focus that should have gone to this bubbling suspense on making almost a travelogue for Italy, including numerous loving shots of Florence's landscape.
A former cinematographer who famously collaborated with David Lean on Great Expectations, Green comes across as perfunctorily devoting too much of the story’s time surveying the Italian sunsets and festivals, not to mention all that nauseatingly glorious technicolor everywhere. He introduces potentially colorful characters who never go anywhere. Fabrizio’s overweight cousin, playboy brother, flashy sister-in-law are explicitly introduced and then just sit there without contributing anything meaningful. At least in the musical, there’s the explosive scene at the wedding rehearsal where Clara goes beserk chastising the sister-in-law for getting too friendly with Fabrizio in order to make her husband jealous. Overall, the movie just seems too long, and that it could have ended several times before it finally does. A lot of this is due to scenes packed in merely to remind us, Hey! We're in Italy! Look at Italy! Glimmering water! Gorgeous statues! Hilarious but romantic side characters! Italy!
Let it be said, though, that the scenes Green shoots that do capture that tension are pretty great. The one that stands out in my mind is a manic coach ride Meg takes on a whim while sorting out her thoughts. The coachman is far too fast for the genteel Meg, and the horses rattle down crowded, narrow Florence streets, and the camerawork perfectly captures that sickly feeling of a ride that keeps going faster and faster, while you have no control to stop it. This tension is likewise painted on de Havilland’s face: at first, she tries desperately to hold on to some semblance of brave dignity, tight-lipped and stoic. Nevertheless, a pale fear casts over her face, until she sharply demands to be let out.
For a movie like this, that tends to lose its focus, actors are key to grounding it. I wouldn’t call de Havilland’s performance remarkable or anything, but her subtlety does get at you. She’s no flashy Southern matron straight from the pages of Steel Magnolias—Thank God. At times she borders on coming across too cold, but we as an audience sense the love and anxiety that enforces this stiffness. After all, through most of the movie she’s determined to get rid of Fabrizio, without hopefully having to reveal why. So she gives him the cold shoulder at every opportunity, while never being anything less than polite. Yet the propriety and reservations change drastically when Clara’s father enters the picture.
Played by Barry Sullivan, Noel Johnson, Meg’s husband and Clara’s father, is perhaps the most unfair representation in the movie. In fact, the two older male characters are pretty much given the shaft—Rossano Brazzi’s Signor Naccarelli is a sensual enigma, and while he’s given the most screentime along with de Havilland and Mimieux, we’re never quite sure where he’s coming from. He talks a lot, but his benign, slightly sleazy expressions seem to negate everything he says, so it’s hard to get a grip on his motives in pushing the relationship between his son and Clara. Meg pretty much bribes him with Clara's dowry, yet she points out to Noel that the Naccarellis are wealthy themselves. What's his deal?
But returning to Noel, if he had been played more sensitively or directed more sensitively, perhaps we’d feel more genuinely conflicted about whose side to take: his or Meg’s. Because really, Noel’s arguments often make sense. What will happen to Clara when her parents die? He says he’s done his research into the establishment she’d go to, and that it’s a good place where they can visit her every day. A combination of independent and assisted living might be more ideal, but was that really a viable option back then? And Meg truly is unrealistic—and vaguely bigoted—when she asserts that Clara will never have anything more to do as a wealthy Italian wife than to sit still and look pretty. “The grandmothers really take care of the children.” All right, so what happens when Clara’s a grandmother?
Like I said, many of Noel’s arguments make sense, but we’re not allowed to sympathize with him. Why? Because it’s very clear that he’s not motivated out of pure concern for Clara, but because the toll raising her has taken on Meg makes it difficult for him to have sex with his wife. How base of him, how uncaring! He’s short with both wife and daughter. He's just plain unlikable.
Frankly, he’s a stereotype of the small-minded rich American businessman, and that’s disappointing in a movie that tries to bring together so many varying cultures in harmony: American, Italian, disabled. This portion of the film is a let-down.
Yet there’s no denying that Noel’s decision to place Clara in an institution is the deciding factor in Meg’s life, bringing about a huge shift in her character. After spending the first half of the movie doing everything she can think of to keep them apart, she now decides she’ll stop at nothing to get Clara safely married to Fabrizio.
I argue that this bold move does not indicate Meg growing stronger as a character, but that she’s instead finally snapped, and convinced herself to believe in a delusion. Because even though her love for her daughter is pure and genuine, this is still an incredibly selfish act from the standpoint of the unknowing Naccarellis', and from Clara’s standpoint, too. Meg isn’t going to look after Clara anymore, Fabrizio is. She’s essentially dumped Clara on him and his family, just as Noel wanted to dump her in an institution. Different gilded cage but with the same bars for the hapless Clara, with the addition of domestic responsibility: just how much does Clara know about the birds and the bees? Does she know what to expect on her wedding night? Does she have the wherewithal to stand pregnancy? Especially in a household where English is not the first language--and for her mother-in-law, not one of her languages at all? Such questions require more than a mother’s faith, particularly if that mother is no longer in charge.
The movie doesn’t falter leaving these questions open-ended; it’s good that there’s controversy. It’s a tough subject. We want Clara to be happy, but will she be for long, or Fabrizio? The tone for all this does seem a bit off, though. The cheery bright colors and de Havilland’s Christian Dior outfits, along with the broad comedy from the Naccarellis, aren’t the only parts that jar with the angsty material. In the last scene, as Clara and Fabrizio make their way to the car after the wedding, Clara stoops down and eats one of the flower petals the guests threw at their feet. A quick look of apprehension crosses Meg’s face, but dissipates as Fabrizio leans down to eat one, too. While this is a heartwarming scene in a way, it does feel a little bit like a cheat: see, these two kids get each other! Don’t worry your pretty little early ‘60s noggins about Clara’s future.
However, hokey as that scene may seem, it does lead to the last line, when Meg smiles eerily and says emphatically, “I’ve done the right thing.” De Havilland’s delivery lets the audience know that she’s not done right in a moral sense, but for her peace of mind. Meg just might be losing it; why else does she lackadaisically let Signor Naccarelli kiss her, then act like a sultry coquette who withdraws her favors the next moment? She’s testing the waters of her freedom, but her freedom from what? She’ll always love Clara, so it’s not at all that she wants to get rid of her. No, she wants to get rid of the obligation to play by society’s rules that have been laid out for her daughter, and for herself. She wants that “normal” daughter, but because she can’t, she’ll get that daughter a “normal” life, even if that means turning her back on her own typical role, that of the completely faithful wife and controlling mother.
Clara’s marriage isn’t so much about securing Clara’s future as it is about Meg letting loose in her own. This is ironic, seeing as Meg's freedom means trapping Clara in that same world of conservative marriage, where this carefree, childlike girl will be expected to eventually fall in line as the wise mother figure. Meg does not maliciously place Clara in this position; this mother's simply so far gone in her delusion of a happy life for Clara she bowls over such details. De Havilland’s cool performance covers a clever and buzzing mind that slowly loses itself in her character's great love for her daughter, and she gracefully gets across the quiet tragedy of this situation when the direction fails to.
Other than de Havilland, the only standout performance I can think of is Mimieux as Clara. Her portrayal probably doesn't rank up there with all the Leonard DiCaprios in What’s Eating Gilbert Grapes, the pantheon of realistic renderings of intellectually disabled characters. However, she does do wonders. As always, I go more for unique spark and style over realism that's dolorous for the sake of "honesty," and Mimieux's giddy charm makes it clear why she’s had so many gentleman callers, and why Fabrizio would be so taken with her. To accomplish that, it really can’t be too obvious she’s disabled. Her best scene is when she and her parents are dining in an outside cafe in Rome, and her parents push her to leave the country without seeing Fabrizio again. She turns hysterical, and for one of the few times in the movie, Noel and Meg work in unison out of mutual concern, getting her to a taxi. Mimieux makes the shift to Clara’s hyperventilating and babbling a realistic transition that feels true to the character. The image of her frantic shaking and yelling at the table stays with you.
It’s one of the few times we see the ugly side of Clara’s impairment, and it’s a good choice to make it so brief; we see throughout that Clara is charming in her innocence, and at times we feel almost a condescension to her character from the filmmakers, that she’s no more than a pretty little doll that can't grow up (Meg says that’s the one consolation she takes from her daughter’s condition). However, this scene reminds us that this bright Florence fairytale will have to end sometime, that Fabrizio’s steady hands on her temples might not always calm Clara. For now, he eats the flower with her, but will he always? That dark edge of hysteria in Clara exists in Meg, too, and also behind the glittering cinematography and fashionable setting.