A story well told is always worth our attention, and thus it is with MADE IN ITALY, a heart-warming tale of coming to terms with the past in order to face a future without the burden of unresolved grief and lingering complacency. Set for the most part in the spectacular Tuscan countryside, its pacing and cinematography take their cues from the lush color palette and languid approach to life to be found there.
Our star is Liam Neeson, an actor with a very particular thespian skill set that allows him to be adept whether the role is heroic, villainous, salt-of-the-earth, victimized, or the one he has pioneered as a wholly improbable, yet somehow believable, lethal l‘homme de certain age. Here he is Robert Foster, a once promising artist who has devolved into a cynically hedonistic existence of wine, women, and living on the laurels of his glorious past in a London house that is best described as ramshackle. He’s also estranged from his only son, Jack (Micheál Richardson, Neeson’s real-life son for an extra layer of texture)), an art gallery manager, and a good one, about to lose his job along with his wife in a divorce he refuses to accept. Jack, determined to buy the gallery to save his job, convinces his father to sell the palazzo they jointly own in Tuscany, and the two embark on an uncomfortable journey, literal and metaphorical, as they set about getting the property, best described as a train wreck, into shape for the sale.
At this point, there are the expected plot points as father and son discover they have nothing to say to one another; disappoint one another in a million ways both large and small; engage in repairs using diametrically opposing methods; and form a relationships with local women. The humor is unforced, as is the pathos, with Neeson exhibiting a rumpled magnetism and easygoing regard for his fellow creatures, except Jack, that is just as equally unforced. He conveys a genuine regret over the hurt feelings he’s caused when he can’t get the name of his latest bedmate right even as she storms out with nary a backward glance at him or Jack, who’s stumbled in at the wrong moment. In Italy, however, he meets his match in Kate (Lindsay Duncan in an arresting, intimidating performance), the ex-pat real estate agent hired to unload the palazzo. Her aggressive iciness towards him only enhances Robert’s genuine niceness by making us feel sorry for him, rather than for the person dealing with an unsalable property and the irresponsible co-owner who’s let it fall into decay.
As the story progresses, the reasons for the father-son estrangement slowly surface with cryptic references that slowly build to the necessary final confrontation. The mystery of the absence of Jack’s mother comes to light, and the unspoken grievances and guilts of the past 20 years that result from that absence, are finally discussed. There is nothing melodramatic, though, and it’s to the credit of writer/director James d’Arcy that he chooses that emotional authenticity over cheap hyperbole. It’s also to his credit that he finds ways to explain the hold Tuscany has on people, from Robert’s summation of why the view from their terrace is perfection itself, to the parade of gauche buyers who parade through the palazzo missing everything that makes it uniquely divine. That would include the mural Robert painted when he lost Jack’s mother, a formidable explosion of darkness in the light-filled space that says more about the nature of loss than any soliloquy, no matter how well crafted, ever could.
MADE IN ITALY doesn’t take many risks in its plot, nor does it need to do so, though the rogue weasel is a piquant touch. The burgeoning romance between Jack and a local chef (Valeria Bilello) with a wicked sense of humor, like the film itself, more than makes up in charm what it lacks in originality. This is a retelling of the classic tale of harried city folk discovering what they’re missing by spending time in a small town where the inhabitants have discovered the secret of life. Not a perfect life, but a meaningful one that accepts life’s imperfections and celebrates the rest. Well acted, intelligently directed, this bittersweet love letter to life is an irresistibly disarming idyll that will warm the cockles of your heart.