The Bridges of Madison County is a great example of that. Photography here is a metaphor for the way to experience the world: avid, pleasurable and unattached at the same time. We have Meryl Streep as Francesca, an Italian-born housewife in a quiet small town in Iowa, and Clint Eastwood as Robert Kincaid, a (fictitious) traveling photographer on assignment to photograph the covered bridges the county is famous for.
Their four-day chance affair changes them profoundly. Francesca reconnects to the beauty and happiness she knew in her native Bari, lost when she moved to the middle of nowhere in Iowa, with her American soldier husband. Through his photography, she rediscovers the freedom to do things just because they make her experience beauty instead of pursuing them for a practical reason. Like Robert’s decision to take a train trip out of Bari not to get somewhere, but just to enjoy the beauty of the scenery. This is what photography is all about: finding beauty in the everyday practicality just for the purpose of enjoying it.
Robert, on the other hand, finds that his current approach to life is untenable. His has been a true photographic approach: appreciating people everywhere but not staying put anywhere. Needing everyone but not committing to anyone specifically. Drifting away from a person he loved because the geographic distance created an emotional gap, too.
Robert and Francesca feel realized through each other. But they find that once they actually weave their lives together, they’d lose the magic of the connection. This elusive pursuit of happiness is a metaphor of what photography is: it’s the happiness created by the memory of a subject, not its actual possession. In fact, we might enjoy the memory – or an image – of an idyllic place where we’d hate to actually live forever. So Robert and Francesca make a choice that is “photographic” in a sense. They decide to keep their paths separate, while the memory of their encounter would ignite their happiness for the rest of their lives.
Robert leaves his cameras to Francesca after his death and this is not a gratuitous piece of the plot. After their brief encounter, she has been following his photography and career at the National Geographic, but that career was inspired by her. It is only logical that the cameras, the tools for discovering beauty which she found through him, would have a final rest with her. Finally, they both commit to the same place in their deaths, by asking that their ashes be spread at the place that sealed their love, the Roseman Bridge.
Ultimately, this is a film about beauty and the ability to grasp it more than a romantic drama. And in a subtle way, it’s all about photography.