After a long career, 'Rain Man' creator wanted to make a movie about love

Darren Criss and Madalina Ghenea play Tyler and Rosalia in 'Smitten!'
Actors Darren Criss and Madalina Ghenea play Tyler and Rosalia in "Smitten!"
Courtesy Smitten Movie

Twin Cities native Barry Morrow says he made his new movie at just the right time.

"Because I am old, and I have spent my whole career writing weepy dramas," he said. "And I wanted to leave my career on a different note."

He also wanted to do a film about something he learned over the years:

"Which is, essentially, love is all there is!" he said. "And so I wanted to write something sweet and light, and an homage to this concept that everyone needs, deserves, and has a heck of a time finding love and holding onto it."

The result is "Smitten!"

Minnesota native Barry Morrow on the set of 'Smitten!' in the Italian Alps
Minnesota native Barry Morrow on the set of "Smitten!" in the Italian Alps.
Courtesy Smitten Movie

Morrow changed the face of TV and film with his stories. He wrote "Bill," which was hailed in 1981 as the first authentic portrayal of a man with developmental disability on American TV. He later wrote 1988's Oscar-winning "Rain Man," about an autistic savant.

Now, after decades in Hollywood, Morrow has turned to directing to produce his romantic comedy. "Smitten!" gets its world premiere Friday night at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival.

He found his inspiration for the film in Italy. While on vacation, a friend told him about an obituary he'd read. It was for a woman who had met the love of her life in a remote mountain village on the day before he shipped off to World War I. She never saw him again. She never married. Decades later, she left money in her will for a festival in the village to celebrate love.

"The tragedy was, the lawyer ran off with the money," said Morrow. "And after that a kind of depression descended on this place, and I realized I could complete somebody's death wish."

Morrow wrote a script. But life intervened, and he had to set it aside for 20 years. Then the universe realigned, and Morrow found himself back in northern Italy, sitting for the first time in the director's chair shooting "Smitten."

The story is about a cursed village where no one has fallen in love for decades. Then an old man sets a counter-curse. It causes all those who sleep in a certain barn to fall head-over-heels in love with the first living thing they see when they wake up.

The first people in the barn are three Mafiosi who have kidnapped a young American named Tyler. When he tries to escape, bound and hooded, he crashes into a cart owned by Rosalia, who runs the village cantina.

"Who are you? she demands. "Why do you torment me? Idiota!" She slaps him.

"Ow! No, please help me," he cries. "I'm a prisoner. I am an escaped hostage. Please help me!"

"Help you?" she sneers. "Look what you have done! I say look!"

She pulls off the hood, and look he does. He is instantly smitten; she is still not impressed and stomps off.

Meanwhile, back at the barn, the gangsters are similarly enamored with an elderly woman, a young man and a passing cow. They spend the rest of the film trying to work it all out.

"It's very much like 'A Midsummer Night's Dream,'" said Morrow. "I tried out for 'Midsummer Night's Dream' in college and didn't make it. So I guess I am getting my revenge some 50 years later."

While Morrow had made documentaries years ago in the Twin Cities about social issues, he had not directed a feature film. He said that he got through the experience by doing what he has always done.

"I have been a writer all of my career, and you do that alone," he said. "And then you direct a picture, and you do that with 200 people. But you are still telling a story."

When asked if there is a connection with "Bill" and "Rain Man," Morrow said yes: It's the heart, the hunger of the human heart. He grew emotional as he recalled how the semi-autobiographical "Bill" ends:

"Dennis Quaid, who played me, leans forward to Mickey Rooney, who played Bill, and their foreheads almost touch. And in 'Rain Man,' they do touch. And in 'Smitten!' they kiss!"

Morrow will introduce "Smitten!" at its world premiere Friday night at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival. That show, and a matinee Saturday, are sold out, but there will be limited rush tickets available at the door.

"Look, there are really important films in this festival," said Morrow. "Ones that make you think, that may change your mind about the world. And our movie isn't that.

"Our movie is a really radical movie, now that I think of it, because it's an old-fashioned film in a way. I like to say it's an analog film in a digital age."

After the Minnesota show, "Smitten!" will screen in Rome — and then Morrow will attend a special showing in that little village and maybe fulfill a wish for a festival to celebrate love.

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