My love-hate letter to the Italian Summer

italian summer call me by your name
Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

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The air is hot and dry, and yet there is still a slight breeze that pushes hair back in effortless waves. Everybody is clad in neutral linen ensembles, paired with sunglasses and tote bags slung casually over their shoulders. Most of the day remains in a hazy afternoon daze, with dappled sunlight casting a golden glow over exposed skin. 

This is the Italian Summer. 

The Italian Summer is an all-too-common trope in fiction, a dramatic foil to the misery of English spring showers and gray skies. A utopian oasis away from the drudgery of monotony and responsibility. Where Europeans and Americans alike may flock like fruit flies to a ripe peach when their domestic weather turns undesirable and their skin too pale pink for their taste. 

It offers reprieve from reality, and characters in films think of it as the quintessential escape. Long before the days of Luca Guadagnino came depictions of Audrey Hepburn waltzing through a cobblestone square in “Roman Holiday,” or Julia Roberts winding her way down Tuscan roads on a baby blue Vespa in “Eat Pray Love.” For these female characters, their Italian Summer represented new love and opportunity for self-exploration. Italy, in all its pasta-packed glory, contains a romantic or sexual awakening. It holds the opportunity for reinvention, and thus, the Italian Summer continues to be used as a euphoric space for disillusion and desire. 

When forming the Italian Summer — as it is after all, a destination constructed by the usually American audience instead of the local population — there are scenes crucial to its actualization. The characters gracefully bike from their pastel-colored villas, through rough side roads lined with cypress trees toward the nearest township. They may then stroll across cobblestone streets toward a cafe, where groups of old nonnos chain-smoke and slap down playing cards, dog-eared from years of use. 

This scene, or a derivative of it, is apparent in “Call Me by Your Name,” “A Room With a View” and recently, “Normal People.” In each of those storylines, the idea of escapism is incredibly pervasive. These characters are running away from the realities of their day to day, running straight into the open arms of a sleepy Mediterranean village. To a place where they are surrounded by a carefree culture and where any behavior is acceptable because, well, it’s Italy. Everything is elevated to elegance: an ice lolly, a simple piece of fruit or even a glass of lemonade. 

However, the Italian Summer is not what it seems. It is sure to be shattered once an ounce of reality seeps in, discoloring its sunny hue. 

The Italian Summer is deeply problematic, as it sets an unattainable dream for those who are not white or privileged. It is inherently a luxury holiday. In many of the films that depend upon the Italian Summer, the destination is painted as something completely normal for characters to participate in, which is an economically outlandish concept. The grandeur of it all is dismissed in these films by the casual portrayal of the Italian Summer. 

The characters in the Italian Summer don’t actually do much. The romance of it all is grounded in the interpersonal relationships that develop lying in the tall grass, serenaded by the sound of cicadas. The narrative is almost always focused on just the characters, instead of their surrounding environments. Every local is only seen as part of the backdrop — grandmothers shelling peas, shopkeepers selling cigarette cartons, handymen bringing in fish for the evening meal. 

The visiting characters don’t exactly interact with Italy either; rather, Italy interacts with them. The local culture is made into a trope, to the extent that it appears as a complete fantasy. In most cases, integration with the Italian Summer only benefits the characters, as they exemplify commercial tourism through their uses of the southern sun and localities. The Italian Summer is used as an enabling factor to progress their own romantic narratives.

That is the damning thing about the Italian Summer: its transient temporality. Characters must always return to their originating points, an additional heartbreak to join their romantic failures. 

While the Italian Summer is far from the homophobic, industrial and hierarchical realities of the characters’ home cities, this is not an accessible place for finding love. These films convey that an idyllic location is crucial to building romance and blossoming passion. They provide a sun-kissed, hazy dreamscape for characters caught in a standstill frame of their lovestruck adolescences. 

But the romance will forever be stuck in the Italian Summer, never to venture outside into reality — it simply won’t survive. The films themselves even seem to acknowledge the fleeting nature of the trope’s relationships, as the privileged fantasy often ends in tears (perhaps in front of a fireplace). 

For characters as well as viewers, the Italian Summer is an inaccessible place of privilege, marketed as attainable due to the nonchalant nature of the characters and their lifestyles. There’s a disconnect between the external environment and the internal escapism of the relationships. Just as summer comes to an end, so does the fantasy. 

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected].