A masterpiece revisited
Hollywood’s eye, either with the sparkle or infectious discharge of nostalgia, has fixed itself here on the capital of the Renaissance. Last year, Inferno, the third instalment of Ron Howard’s blockbusters based on Dan Brown’s books, came to theaters around the world; earlier this winter, the hugely-popular entertainment company, Netflix, started streaming the series, Medici: Masters of Florence, a 15th century murder mystery starring Dustin Hoffman and Richard Madden; and recently Mel Gibson, the controversial Academy Award-winning director renowned for historical epics, teased the subject of his next movie, the Medici family, focusing specifically on Lorenzo the Magnificent.
Florence is no stranger to foreign and domestic films. Ranging from Ridley Scott’s psychological thriller Hannibal to Marco Tullio Giordana’s cinematic achievement The Best of Youth, with a runtime of six hours, the oeuvre of this city features stories about a cannibalistic serial killer, four local friends, a Hitchcockian businessman, British aristocrats and many more. Poets, painters, sculptors and architects are no longer the only artists who have contributed to the beauty of Florence; by now directors, too, have attempted to secure its ineffable mystery with their cameras. But of all these attempts, the essential film for the wayward traveller, the lovesick tourist far away from home, is still A Room with a View.
Based on the brilliant novel by E.M. Forster, A Room with a View tells the story of Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham Carter), a young woman torn between her romantic impulses and the restrictive culture of the Edwardian era; between her stuffy fiancé Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis) and the ernest George Emerson (Julian Sands), the romantic figure of the film, a reader of Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and Byron. Directed by James Ivory, produced by Ismail Merchant and with a script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, it marked the start of the trio’s golden age, which led to the critically acclaimed Howard’s End and Remains of the Day, and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, winning four of them.
A novelist has at their service the artifice of language to form the tone of a work; a director of literary adaptations thus has the difficult task of manifesting this tone visually. One might think of the sinister stone towers in Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, or the suspicious darkness of Thornfield Hall in Cary Fukunaga’s recent take on Jane Eyre. Similarly, in A Room with a View, the pastoral scenery and Florence cityscape, pristinely photographed, seem to enchant its characters like a supernatural force, freeing them from the superficial customs of daily life. Eleanor Lavish, played by Judi Dench, remarks: “I have a theory that there is something in the Italian landscape which inclines even the most stolid nature to romance.”
This aspect of the film conjures up two of its most beautiful sequences. On a sunbaked Tuscan hillside, to the sound of a Puccini aria, Lucy stumbles down a field of poppies to where George, standing, fans himself with his hat. Then, facing her, the once-brooding boy strides through the field, drops the hat and abruptly kisses her. Her body quakes; the aria crescendos. Undoubtedly, this is one of the most passionate kisses in the history of cinema, as well as one of the most beautifully shot. Back in England, George, Freddy (Rupert Graves) and Mr. Beebe (Simon Callow), a kind-hearted yet slightly Boccaccio-esque rector, bathe and play in a pond. Barenaked, they jump joyfully into the water, splashing and hollering, racing around its edges. They are unheeded, happy; and although the scene concludes with a comedic clash, the characters and audience find an unspeakable bliss among the lush landscape.
The film, like most masterpieces, critiques the society of the time, notably the killjoy prejudices of the middle and upper-middle classes. Personified by Cecil Vyse, an aristocratic dandy with a penchant for portentous posturings and smug scoffs, and Charlotte Bartlett, the uptight and socially-inept chaperone played by Maggie Smith, this theme places a necessary juxtaposition at the foot of the film’s unhinged romanticism. Both of them deny the kindnesses of others for the sake of their beliefs: Charlotte, adhering to the scripture of propriety and etiquette, rudely refuses the rooms offered to her and her cousin by the Emersons; Cecil, due to his aesthetic snobbishness, “spoils the fun” of Lucy’s free-thinking family and cannot apprehend Lucy’s true self to his own detriment.
But these characters, although humorously mocked, are not solely confined to the mundane two-dimensional caricatures typical of social satire; they are also highly sympathetic and have heart-wrenching moments in which they face their flaws. They, too, are given a view. Before an awkward, monocle-fumbling faceplant of a kiss, Cecil sits down amongst the serene English verdure, his features and stark formal suit glowing against the greenery. He says to Lucy: “I somehow think that you feel more at home with me in a room, never in the real country like this.” She quickly replies: “Do you know I think you’re right. When I do think of you it is always in a room.” Disappointed by Lucy’s answer and by himself, Cecil silently casts his eyes down to the ground. Close to the end of the film, Day-Lewis portrays another stab of painful self-realization, a stray vein bulging on his forehead — yet another magnificent performance that solidifies his position as one of the foremost actors of our day.
To the wayward traveller: Let this film inform you about the beauty of this city and the splendor of its countryside. Let this film bring you comfort at a time in which we seem to be cowardly hiding away in the safety of pre-romantic love, at a time in which a strict ideological scripture forces us to condemn characters rather than feel forgiveness for them. Let this film allow you to look hopefully into the future, to imagine the films yet to find their way into the oeuvre of Florence.