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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Enchanted Tuscany

To recap from last week, my recent grueling, labor-intensive personal research (okay, it was a holiday) established that the magical effect that Tuscany seems to have on visitors, as depicted in numerous movies, is actually real. On film these visitors are usually, though not always, British, who need a good dose of magic to get them outside of their cold, repressed, stiff-upper-lip reserve. As an antidote to British stuffiness, the Tuscan sun always works wonders on celluloid.

My research further shows that the mythical part in all this seems to be the cold British reserve. Anyway, it wasn’t much in evidence during our exhaustive (well, 43-hour) research phase in London. But then maybe the middle of one of the world’s largest cities is not exactly the best place to find stuffy, reserved people. Like most big cities, London seemed full of people from everywhere. As far as the natives that we did meet, my impression is that the English are becoming more like, well, the Irish. But that’s not to say that the old culture conflicts between the English and the Irish aren’t still there. For instance, my Irish wife could not understand for the life of her what problem there was in placing the Little Munchkin in a bed of rainbow-like tulips in a public park in (appropriately enough) Bloomsbury for a photo. (Turned out great.) But the groundskeeper was immediately all over her about the park rules. The funny thing is that I’m not sure he was, strictly speaking, English. His dress and accent suggested more of a Caribbean origin.

So, what are these Brits-in-Tuscany movies I keep going on about? Well, typically they are made by filmmakers like Merchant/Ivory and are based on novels by writers like E.M. Forster. And they usually star Helena Bonham Carter. (Maggie Smith is usually in there somewhere too.) The granddaddy of all Brits-in-Tuscany movies is 1985’s A Room with a View which, as it happens, was produced by Ismail Merchant, directed by James Ivory, based on a book by E.M. Forster and starred Helena Bonham Carter. (Maggie Smith was her very proper chaperone.) As one very insightful critic once wrote, Bonham Carter “is to this kind of movie as Jamie Lee Curtis used to be to teenage slasher flicks.” (Okay, it was me.) In this movie, Bonham Carter plays Lucy Honeychurch, a repressed young Englishwoman, the type of girl who would normally marry a prig like the one that Daniel Day-Lewis plays. But on holiday in Florence, without warning, she gets kissed by the free-thinking George Emerson (played by Julian Sands), whose father (Denholm Eliott) is a devotee of Henry Thoreau. Will Lucy wind up with her fop or with the impulsive, emotive, passionate George? The suggestion is that there wouldn’t even be a question if she hadn’t been influenced by Italian joie de vivre and the Tuscan sun. It’s the kind of place that, well, makes an English reverend (played by Simon Callow) go skinny dipping.

Another Forster adaptation came out in 1991, this time directed by Charles Sturridge. It was Where Angels Fear to Tread, and once again the star was Helena Bonham Carter. This time, however, the victim of Italy’s enchantment is Helen Mirren, a widow who heads to warmer climes to mourn and recover. She does such a splendid job of it that she winds up married and pregnant by a very young Italian man. Things go downhill from there, but there is absolutely no doubt that, for a while anyway, Italy has made Mirren very happy.

English filmmakers are not the only ones who have tackled the Brits-in-Tuscany subgenre. Italian directors have had a go at it as well. In 1996 the renowned Bernardo Bertolucci surprised his followers with a distinct change of pace from the grand epics he had been making with the romantic comedy Stealing Beauty. In this film, Liv Tyler comes to a Tuscan villa on a visit to family friends (Jeremy Irons and Sinead Cusack). Since she is an American, the question is not whether she will break out of her reserve and repression to love the right man. It is all about who Tyler, who plays a virgin, will end up sleeping with. This film probably paints the most luminous portrait of Tuscany as holiday nirvana of all the films in the category.

Another famous Italian filmmaker, Franco Zeffirelli, had his turn at the subgenre with the 1999 movie Tea with Mussolini. This film is actually a nostalgic, semi-autobiographical work inspired by Zeffirelli’s own childhood. In a reversal of the usual Brits enchanted theme, here it is a young Italian boy who is affected and influenced by British ex-patriots, a Florence community that includes Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Joan Plowright, as the storm clouds of World War II gather. The ladies presumably inspire the lad to grow up and make glossy, romantic movie versions of operas and Shakespeare plays.

Another Brits-in-Tuscany-on-the-eve-of-World-War-II flick came out in 2000. It was called Up at the Villa and was directed by Philip Haas, who had previously examined the quaint habits of the English aristocracy in Angels & Insects. The story was taken from W. Somerset Maugham, and this time it is Kristin Scott Thomas who must make a choice between love and dependability. Upper class crust is provided by James Fox, and Sean Penn is on hand as an American playboy.

Another movie that does not technically belong in this category (because it is not set in Tuscany but rather on some island somewhere off the Italian coast) but does belong spiritually is Mike Newell’s 1991 film Enchanted April. It was based on a 1921 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim. Perhaps taking a cue from Shirley Valentine, two repressed married Englishwomen, on an impulse, rent an Italian villa for a month, taking on two other women as housemates. Once again, Italy works its miracles on the visiting Brits (Miranda Richardson, Joan Plowright, Polly Walker, Josie Lawrence), and all the problems that were bothering them back home seem to get solved as if by magic.

If any Italian location has as much or more quality of enchantment for the Brits in movies than Florence and Tuscany, it is probably Venice, which has been the scene of many films. Often, however, Venice has a more decadent or sinister quality for ex-patriots on film, as evidenced by movies like Luchino Visconte’s Death in Venice, Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now and Paul Schrader’s The Comfort of Strangers. There is, however, a spiritual cousin to the Brits-in-Tuscany genre that is set in Venice. It is Iain Softley’s 1997 film The Wings of the Dove, which stars (guess who) Helena Bonham Carter. Based on a Henry James novel, it puts Bonham Carter into a romantic triangle with Linus Roache and Alison Elliott.

Such is the allure of Tuscany in the movies that the region sometimes figures as a plot element in movies that are not even set there. For example, there are a striking number of movies that feature characters who talk about their strong desire to go on a holiday in Tuscany. We have seen this in movies like Time Code, Mike Figgis’s real-time chronicle of intertwining characters in modern-day Los Angeles, and He Loves Me… He Loves Me Not, Laetitia Colombani tale of a young woman in Bordeaux who stalks a married man. Other films have been set (or partially set) in Tuscany but have nothing to do with the region’s magical influence on Brits. For instance, in Hannibal, escaped serial killer Anthony Hopkins hides out in Florence and occupies himself as an art scholar. Presumably, this is so he can have only the freshest Chianti for serving with his favorite recipes.

And, of course, Italian movies have used Tuscany as a setting for years without needing to put ex-patriot Brits into the story. Dario Argento’s 1996 film Stendhal’s Syndrome has the director’s daughter Asia playing a policewoman pursuing a serial killer (not Hannibal Lecter), but she suffers from the titular Stendhal’s syndrome, which is rare condition that causes dizziness and hallucinations when exposed to the sight of paintings and artistic masterpieces. She is really in trouble when her fiendish adversary lures her into the Uffizi museum.

Arguably, the best movies about Tuscany may be the ones made by a pair of brothers who were born in Tuscany. They are Paolo and Vittorio Taviani. Their first film was a short made a half-century ago called San Miniato, July 1944 (with Cesare Zavattini), about a Nazi massacre in their hometown, near Pisa. In the 1980s they remade that documentary as a beautiful feature film called The Night of the Shooting Stars. A few years later they made a film called Good Morning Babylon, in which two teenage brothers, who come from a family of artisans who restore cathedrals, leave their native Tuscany for California and, after many trials and tribulations, wind up working for D.W. Griffith on the sets of his epic movie Intolerance. The allegory of the craftsmen, who come from the tradition of maintaining the magnificent cathedrals of centuries past, transitioning to work on cinematic masterpieces is an appealing one, especially to people who love movies, as the Taviani brothers clearly do. I suppose, in light of Tuscany’s long association with the movies, the film also works as an allegory of the region’s relationship with the movies as well.

-S.L., 19 May 2005

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