Avanti! is a romantic comedy, and something a bit more. It tells the bittersweet story of an American (Jack Lemmon) and a Brit (Juliet Mills) who independently journey to Ischia in the Bay of Naples, he to retrieve the body of his father and she that of her mother, both of whom just died together in an automobile crash. Lemmon discovers to his chagrin that the two elders had been having a surreptitious one-month summer affair for 10 years. The movie becomes an understated story of the beginning of a second generation affair between two unlikely people who start out at odds, but where soon enough the gruff exterior of the harried American businessman softens in the face of the charm of Ms Mills’s character and of the Italian setting (Italy isn’t a country, it’s an emotion, says Ms Mills). Remarkably, Avanti! isn’t very well known today, and isn’t shown much on cable TV (as a veteran channel-flipper, I know), but on release in 1972 it received 6 Golden Globe nominations, and one win (Lemmon).
The movie reminds me of a late-career, very personal, and similarly undeservedly underappreciated picture by another favorite director of mine – John Ford’s Donovan’s Reef. Like that one, this one is full of the director’s many special touches – comedy, sentimentality, satire. Mills’s riff on not being taken for granted while she enthusiastically unpacks her clothes in Lemmon’s room is hilarious, the hotel manager is superb, the medicinal mud baths promise an older diplomat the acidity of a man of 20, and it’s delightful to discover how well-stocked the ristorante is with the many varieties of pasta. There’s plenty of the sardonic humor for which writers Wilder and Diamond are known – an impatient, overbearing American diplomat is approaching the small island in a helicopter and asks the pilot “Are you sure this is Ischia, because I do not want to land in Africa?”, from whom comes the reply “That would be bigger”. Subtle comedic touches abound -- the movement of the door handle at a moment of Sicilian passion, the pop of a wine bottle at dinner, a reflexive fascist salute, soaking fingernails in a sugar bowl. The beautiful score consists mostly of well-chosen established Italian tunes – Un’ Ora Sola Ti Vorrei, A Tazza E’ Café, and Senza Fine particularly set the moods and pace. At its core, this is the story of an awakening, a passing through a doorway to a fuller life – Permesso? Avanti!