“The Beautiful Summer is a vibrant and moving addition to the admittedly crowded list of period dramas about the trials and tribulations of growing up.“
Laura Luchetti’s handsomely crafted adaptation of The Beautiful Summer (La bella estate), the celebrated 1949 novella by Cesare Pavese, beautifully captures the evanescent curiosity and lightness of youth. Set in Turin in 1938, this classical tale of self-discovery follows Ginia, a 16-year-old seamstress on the verge of several professional and personal breakthroughs, as she navigates a complex and confusing path to adulthood. While director Luchetti cannot quite avoid the trappings of a dusty melodrama in the latter half of the film, her sensual and thoughtful portrayal of adolescence certainly deserves recognition. Following its premiere at Locarno’s Piazza Grande centerpiece, this pleasurably old-fashioned drama can attract the same demographic that recently turned multiple Elena Ferrante adaptations into global hits. As a sensitively told story of female coming of age benefitting greatly from its richly detailed period setting, The Beautiful Summer quickly brings Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet (and the acclaimed HBO/RAI series based on the four novels) to mind.
The film is bookended by two picnics by a picturesque lake and the first one takes place on a beautiful summer day indeed. What makes this youthful gathering “beautiful” is an almost-palpable sense of endless possibilities. Having moved from the countryside to the big city with her brother, Ginia is surrounded by new acquaintances and friends, whose sexual frankness fascinates her. The one that stands out the most among them is a beautiful model named Amelia, who introduces her to two young bohemian painters called Guido and Rodrigues. Ginia and Guido embark on a passionate affair, but Amelia remains the focal point of the seamstress’s attention. Much is said about whether Amelia really poses nude or how she carries herself when collaborating with painters (the act of looking and the hesitant pleasure of being seen later emerge as key themes in the film), but despite a certain degree of notoriety, she becomes a free-spirited companion for Ginia. This relationship is the most beautiful and enigmatic aspect of the film as Amelia gently puts a spell on Ginia and then reveals her wounds, both physical and psychological, to her new friend. Meanwhile, her boss at the atelier discovers Ginia’s talent as a dressmaker and entrusts her with the task of preparing an important customer’s wedding gown.
All this takes place under the shadow of an impending war, but the approaching horrors of the Second World War are only briefly hinted at. News is heard on the radio, soldiers march on the streets, yet Ginia lives in a world of her own where the future promises creative success, love, and excitement. Coming of age, however, also means facing difficulties and accepting disappointments, or perhaps missing certain opportunities and making costly mistakes. Ginia is no exception. As the story unfolds, she comes to realize that loving someone and being loved in return is not an easy task. Her curiosity about love stems from her desire to be seen by others (the question of whether Ginia can work as a model like Amelia comes up repeatedly and another character describes making love as “being important for someone else for a short while”). But being seen and desired by other people eventually puts Ginia in a vulnerable situation. The tumultuous times in her personal life coincide with a period of professional struggle as well, leading to uncharacteristically sloppy work and the loss of a favorable position at the atelier.
This up-and-down arc is clearly familiar territory with regard to coming-of-age stories, but Luchetti offers a skilful, particularly lush treatment in The Beautiful Summer. One can simply marvel at the gorgeous costumes, enjoy the luminous cinematography, or appreciate the textured production design throughout the film. Even during passages when rushed drama and predictable events leave a bit to be desired in terms of storytelling, each lovingly assembled sequence consistently offers sensory delights. This is the kind of film where you can immediately guess a slight cough will lead to a serious illness, and yet the predictability is easy to forgive if you just admire how lovely the character who coughs always looks in her elegant dresses.
The film’s other major asset is the uniformly excellent performances of the young cast, with Yile Yara Vianello (first discovered in Alice Rohrwacher’s unforgettable debut Corpo Celeste in 2011) carrying the entire film with her magnetic screen presence and nuanced performance, and Deva Cassel (who may be known as Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel’s daughter at this early point in her career but will surely make a strong name for herself in the near future) leaving a superb first impression. Especially notable for the wonderful performances of its leading ladies and Luchetti’s gorgeous recreation of a pivotal period right before a devastating chapter in European history, The Beautiful Summer is a vibrant and moving addition to the admittedly crowded list of period dramas about the trials and tribulations of growing up.