‘The Beautiful Summer’ Review: An Uneven but Sensuous and Sensitive Coming-of-Age Drama

‘The Beautiful Summer’ Review: An Uneven but Sensuous and Sensitive Coming-of-Age Drama

The Beautiful Summer (La Bella Estate) lives up to its title: The screen is alive with the sensual glow of balmy days and nights — and, specifically, with the youthful giddiness that the warmest season rouses. In the uneven period drama, a country girl starts to make her way in the big city and is drawn into a bohemian circle, intrigued by the impetuous painters who turn out to be cads and especially by a free-spirited, sad-eyed model. The romance at the movie’s core doesn’t deliver the intended emotional impact, but there’s a tender, potent resonance to other aspects of the story.

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“Freely inspired” by the 1940 novel of the same name by Cesare Pavese, the third feature from writer-director Laura Luchetti (Twin Flower) sometimes slides into cliché or loses momentum, but it also offers some sharp coming-of-age observations and a delectable physicality, and it’s anchored by the impressive screen debut of Yile Yara Vianello in the lead role.

The Beautiful Summer

The Bottom Line

Sometimes gloriously resonant but not without missteps.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival (Piazza Grande)
Cast: Yile Yara Vianello, Deva Cassel, Nicolas Maupas, Alessandro Piavani, Adrien Dewitte, Cosima Centurioni, Gabriele Graham Gasco, Anna Bellato, Andrea Bosca
Screenwriter-director: Laura Luchetti; based on the novel by Cesare Pavese

1 hour 51 minutes

Given that Vianello’s Ginia is on the cusp of adulthood and a newcomer to the city of Turin, there’s a fittingly self-absorbed sense of discovery to her story. It’s 1938, and she notices the Blackshirts’ bullying ways when they board a bus she’s riding, but Italy’s politics are not front and center in her daily life. When a neighbor’s radio blares a rant by Mussolini, she shuts the window; not unlike the Jewish Parisian in A Radiant Girl, Ginia has more urgently dreamy, creative things to focus on than the intrusions of an authoritarian regime, although she’s certainly in less direct danger than that movie’s protagonist. (Pavese, an influential Italian writer, was persecuted and arrested for his antifascism.)

We first see Ginia on the move, a vision of eagerness, running to catch a tram to her job downtown. In an elegant fashion atelier, she’s one of the uniformed seamstresses reporting to the regal and exacting Ms. Gemma (Anna Bellato, excellent). When Gemma sees a design Ginia has been crafting on her own time from discarded fabric, she urges her to finish it. (The outstanding costumes, both couture and workaday, are by Maria Cristina La Parola.) Soon after, during an after-work stop at a café, Luchetti takes note of the particular delight on Ginia’s face. Unspoken and momentous, it’s the feeling of being seen, Ginia’s talent recognized beyond the constraints of her job description.

Ginia lives with her brother, Severino, and he’s played by Nicolas Maupas, a stealth standout here (Luchetti directed him in the 2021 Italian series Nudes). Though he moved to the city to attend college, Severino is focusing more on utility-company jobs than schoolwork or his personal writing, and seems disillusioned and out of place in Turin. “University’s for rich people,” he says, not without bitterness. While Ginia envisions moving to a bigger city, he’s homesick and talks about returning to the country, where their mother still lives.

At work, Ginia is on a roll: One of her dress designs is a triumph, and Gemma asks her to make an important client’s wedding gown. But soon that forward movement and focus take a detour; Ginia is swept up in a world of parties, drawn there by the slightly older Amelia (Deva Cassel, also a film first-timer). Amelia, who enters the drama by stripping down to her underwear and leaping off a rowboat, is a bit of a cliché of unconventional daring: She smokes, she drinks, she flirts — not just with the men, but, rather pointedly, with Ginia. She walks in the rain. She also coughs the cough of the doomed heroine, an uh-oh movie trope that, thankfully, plays out here in unpredictable fashion.

Ginia takes notice of Amelia’s flair, fascinated by her work as an artist’s model. Severino is scandalized that someone makes a living disrobing. He and the siblings’ friend Rosa (Cosima Centurioni) urge Ginia to stop socializing with Amelia — paradoxical for Rosa, who seems to have a knack for picking men who mistreat her.

Amelia, too, cautions Ginia, to do as she says and not as she does when it comes to her painter friends. But Ginia is eager to pose herself, declaring to Amelia in one of the film’s best lines: “I want someone else to look at me and show me what I’m like.” The wealthy, flamboyant Rodrigues (Adrien Dewitte) throws lawn soirees complete with such exotic luxuries as absinthe, and in the broody Guido (Alessandro Piavani), Amelia sees a chance not just to pose but to lose her virginity.

Ginia takes appreciative notice of her body, in the bath and before a mirror, the nudity captured with a painterly tastefulness. Diego Romero Suarez Llanos’ camera is alert to the quicksilver nuances of Vianello’s performance, the way Ginia’s face lights up at each new experience, whether it’s a sip of aperitif or the chance to be in a painter’s studio, and the way her gaze can darken with disappointment.

In one of the film’s most keenly observed sequences, Luchetti zeros in, with a modern knowingness, on what might be a near-universal aspect of sexual awakening for young women, one that counters the romanticized depiction of first-time sex in countless movies: the disappointment. The helmer and her actors realistically depict the way the longed-for experience can play out as one of physical pain and emotional detachment when a clueless young man is on a self-centered mission. In Ginia’s case, he pops out of bed when he’s done, inspired to get back to the easel, while she stares at a bug on the wall.

But in her situation, too, the letdown is partly because her true attraction is to Amelia. The women’s relationship is not as gripping as it aims to be, and the way it dips into melodrama doesn’t help. Cassel (who’s the daughter of Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel, and who will reunite with Luchetti on Netflix’s limited series The Leopard) delivers a performance whose self-consciousness makes sense to a point — she’s playing a character who earns her living posing. She strikes notes of Amelia’s beneath-the-glamour sorrow, but the less natural slant of her work here limits the impact of the love story between Amelia and Ginia.

It’s through a contemporary lens that the two women’s boldness and certainty prove impressive, if not quite affecting. In a beautiful scene at a small-town dance, propelled by the exquisite music of an onscreen four-piece band, Ginia and Amelia dance together, and Suarez Llanos’ camera moves in so close that you start to wonder if the villagers are unobservant or just open-minded, or if the intimacy of the women’s clinch is symbolic rather than literal.

But it’s the brother-sister relationship that ultimately hits you in the solar plexus. In what at first feels like a one-note role, Maupas subtly finds the depths of hope beneath Severino’s judgmental surface. The tension and love between Ginia and Severino as she breaks away from their roots finds powerful expression in the late going, and in a particularly eloquent wordless scene: She returns home from a birthday dinner with her new friends to find her brother’s gifts on the kitchen table.

Through it all, Francesco Cerasi’s sensitive score and period details both sumptuous and lived-in enliven The Beautiful Summer (the production designer is Giancarlo Muselli). The well-chosen locations include a magnificent 1920s military building with art deco glasswork, the setting for Gemma’s atelier. Not all the intended emotional chords resound, but Luchetti has made a handsome and perceptive feature about finding your people and yourself.