Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Ciao Italia!

Here’s an update from the 58th Cannes Film Festival: I’m not there. Let’s move on.

* * *

For literally decades, I was befuddled by a very simple question that I got asked oftener than one would reasonably think. The question was: Have you ever been in Ireland?

Though the question was simple enough, for years I found myself giving an oddly convoluted response that was clearly longer and more complex than the questioner anticipated or wanted. I would explain that, on my way home from a student year in France, my charter flight from Paris to Oakland stopped briefly at Shannon Airport for refueling. I never got off the plane or had my passport stamped by Irish immigration. So I’m not sure whether I was, technically, ever in Ireland or not. When I was finally sent to Dublin on a business trip in the 1990s, I breathed a sigh of relief. Now I would have an unambiguous answer to the question. Yes, I would be able to say, I have been in Ireland. But, as fate would have it, I don’t think I was ever again asked if I had ever been to Ireland. Instead, people started asking me: How many times have you been in Ireland?

I have long had something of a similar relationship with Italy. Although I have been able to say unequivocally for decades that I have been in Italy, I have always felt that I needed to qualify that declaration. During Christmas break of my year in France, I finished up a visit to Switzerland and Austria by taking advantage of my student rail pass to ride trains across the Alps to Florence then Pisa then Genoa and back into France. I never set foot off the train in Italy except to change trains in a train station. A couple of years later, on a return visit to France, I did spend a weekend in Genoa, but that’s all. Until recently, that had been the extent of my visits to Italy. So I have always felt a bit deceptive in stating that I have been Italy.

I can feel better about it now. Thanks to a mad passion for art history developed by the Missus over the past year or so, we took advantage of the current cheap intra-European airline fares to journey to Tuscany. The Missus’s aim was to see as much architecture and art as she could. The Little Munchkin’s goal was to emulate the commercials she had seen on the telly, in which a pair of tow-headed English children bound out of bed in their Mediterranean villa and rush through flowing curtains into the sunny morning and leap directly into a pristine swimming pool. (I will confess to finding the commercial more impressive because of the super-model-like mother sunning herself on the rubber raft floating in the pristine pool.)

Anyway, my goal for the holiday was different from the rest of the family’s. I had decided that it was high time that I learned first-hand whether there was any truth to all those movies about cold, repressed Brits who go on holiday to Tuscany and suddenly find themselves transformed by the Italian sun and wine into hedonistically liberated free spirits. (There are so many movies that have this theme that it is a virtual sub-genre, and I will talk about individual examples next time.) I felt a duty to my readers to go off and do personal research to see if the Tuscany effect was real or mythical. Not many movie commentators would go to all the trouble of seeing whether sunny weather, delicious wine and food and Italian charm have a magical effect, but it’s just the sort of sacrifice I’m always willing to make for the sake of both of this web site’s readers.

To make the research as accurate as possible, we even spent a couple of nights in London on the way, wo we could get a good dose of British stuffiness and reserve. That would prime me for the experience of cultural contrast. Apart from plane changes at the dreaded Heathrow Airport, I hadn’t been in London for a few years. Our real reason for the layover was to meet up with our friend, Melanie, whose name sometimes graces these pages, who was over from Seattle with a friend for a self-guided Virginia Woolf tour. Melanie has been mad into Woolf and her Bloomsbury friends for a few years now, and she and her companion were determined to visit every location where Woolf had lived or spent time or anyplace that anybody who was related to her had ever lived or spent time or anybody who had ever known her had lived or spent time. Our own goal was more modest: bring the Little Munchkin to the main London tourist sites (Buckingham Palace, Tower of London, Big Ben, the London Eye) and, of course, soak in that British stuffiness. The truth is, though, it’s pretty hard to find British stuffiness. In fact, London felt eerily like Seattle to me. Maybe because every other corner had a Starbucks on it.

I know I’m supposed to decry the sterilizing effects of cold-hearted globalization and the triumph of corporate logo-ism over local character and individuality. But, darn it, I was glad there were Starbucks all around me. After all, it wasn’t as though this was France or Italy or Austria, where indigenous coffee culture had been around for centuries. I still have chilling memories of being in London in the 1970s and pleading with waitresses to bring me a cup of coffee was that wasn’t 98 percent lukewarm milk—when they would bring me a cup of coffee at all. And being lectured that they wouldn’t bring me a cup of black coffee because it was clearly unhealthy. My first inkling that things were changing in England was when I was working my way through the Heathrow labyrinth and spied something called Seattle Coffee Company. It was a chain of Starbucks-like coffee kiosks started by a woman transplanted from the Pacific Northwest to the UK who missed Seattle-style coffee. I understand that Starbucks bought out the chain for its toehold in Britain. With the UK invasion well under way, can the Republic of Ireland be far behind? I noticed a few weeks ago in The Irish Times that Starbucks are advertising for managers for Dublin. Beweleys, watch your back!

But I digress. We got our dose of Britishness and then winged south to Pisa. After winding our way up a mountain road that made a large intestine seem straight by comparison, we found our villa perched on a wooded mountainside with views that seemed to go on forever. The weather was sunny and warm, the locals were lovely, and the pool, while not quite as pristine as the TV adverts, was refreshing. In short, I am happy to report that the Tuscany magic is real. The food was so good it made me cry. The Chianti wines were enchanting. And there wasn’t a Starbucks to be found anywhere. And (this is the best thing of all) it didn’t matter because you could not get a bad cup of coffee anywhere. By law, a demitasse of espresso has to be served at the end of every meal. If only the rest of the world could be so civilized. Meanwhile, the Little Munchkin found her own gustatory delight. One word: gelato.

As our week wore on, the Missus experienced one epiphany after another, mainly in Florence and mainly architecture- and/or art-related: the Duomo, the Palazzo Pitti, the Ponte Vecchio, the Uffizi, Santa Croce, etc. etc. Somewhat unexpectedly, I had my own epiphany the Piazza della Signoria. The sun had just gone down and we were admiring the statuary there, including the copy of Michelangelo’s David, which stood in the old location of the original. Around the corner, a string ensemble was playing music, something that seems to happen a lot on Florence’s streets and piazzas. Abruptly, I became aware that this particular music was extremely familiar to me. It was from Ennio Morricone’s wonderful score for the film Once Upon a Time in the West. Suddenly, I realized in a flood of emotion exactly where I was. I was in the country of Antonioni, Bertolucci, De Sica, Fellini, Pasolini, Scola, Visconti, Wertmuller, and Zeffirelli. And Sergio Leone.

I was not only in the cradle of western culture and literature and of European Christianity. I was also in cinematic holy land. Other countries have impressive film output in terms of artistic quality, but few match or exceed Italy in numbers of true cinematic masters. I don’t know if it’s something in the soil (more likely in the wine or the coffee), but Italy has long been fertile ground for filmmaking. My first real visit to that country wasn’t merely a holiday. It was a pilgrimage. I can now fully appreciate the real meaning of la dolce vita.

Next time we will discuss those Brits-in-Tuscany movies.

-S.L., 12 May 2005

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