CALLERI: 'Made In Italy' presents a different kind of Tuscan villa movie

Real-life father and son, Liam Neeson and Micheal Richardson, play a father and son coming to terms with a family crisis in “Made In Italy." 

Ah Tuscany. The sun in this magical part of Italy seems to have the Midas touch, a golden hue that burnishes everything on which it shines, from its ochre-colored villas, verdant groves of ancient olive trees, and triumvirate of must-see cities: Florence, Pisa, and Lucca.

The familiar Tuscan cypresses stand guard in every corner of the region, tall and thin centurions protecting the past next to roads that meander through the gently undulating hills.

There will be a villa that is in a state of disrepair, as there often is in movies involving Tuscany. An outsider, usually American or British, will arrive in order to return to a fond remembrance or bring a dream to fruition. The villa must be restored. Even if there’s an angry weasel living in the cupboards.

“Made In Italy” has a villa’s restoration at its core, but, although that’s a vital aspect of the story, there’s something more important happening.

The film focuses on a father and son caught up in a struggle to overcome their mutual grief a number of years after the accidental death of the beloved female heart of their family, a wife and mother taken too soon.

In England, Robert Foster is a famous artist, who has lost his way. The creative spark eludes him. His young son Jack had his own struggles after failing to succeed as an artist, but he married into a family that provided him money for his own art gallery. However, his divorce is imminent and his soon-to-be ex-wife is playing cruel marital games regarding Jack buying out her share of the gallery.

Father and son may not be comfortable in each other’s presence, but they forge a forced peace in order to sell the family’s second home, a ramshackle villa in Tuscany. They are both psychologically and emotionally fragile. The villa is filled with memories of the family’s beloved past. What could possibly go wrong?

“Made In Italy” offers additional layers of poignancy because Robert is played by Liam Neeson and Jack is played by his real-life son, Micheal (the Irish spelling) Richardson. Liam’s wife and Micheal’s mother, actress Natasha Richardson, died after a 2009 skiing accident in Quebec, Canada at age 45. Micheal was 14.

The movie mirrors the loss both men felt when Natasha died. The acting from Neeson and young Richardson, now 25, is powerful. When it’s called for, there’s a playfulness that arises from their natural bond. When they bring up memories of the fictional tragedy that affects the characters they’re playing, their shared sorrow is palpable.

For Richardson, who is exceptional in his first major film role, being an actor is in his blood. He gives a performance that is genuine and utterly believable. He clearly belongs to the acting world alongside his father, an Oscar-nominated actor with an extraordinary list of credits, and his mother, a Tony Award-winning actress.

Micheal is a member of one of Britain’s greatest acting dynasties. Vanessa Redgrave is his grandmother, and her robust awards list includes Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Bafta, and Olivier wins. His grandfather, filmmaker Tony Richardson, received two Oscars for directing and producing “Tom Jones” (1963). His great-grandfather, Sir Michael Redgrave (Vanessa’s father) won a Cannes Film Festival best actor award. His great-aunt was the Oscar, Tony, and Emmy-nominated actress Lynn Redgrave.

“Made In Italy” is the feature directing debut of actor James D’Arcy, who also wrote the screenplay. In choosing to frame the story around the relationship between father and son, he takes the so-called “Tuscan villa” movie to a welcome new level. D’Arcy’s writing is deft, and as director, he frames scenes perfectly and gives his cast room to breathe.

Neeson is superb as he juggles concern for his son, sadness for the memories of what was, and an understanding that an artist can never truly stop creating.

All of the supporting players are wonderful. Standouts are Lindsay Duncan as Kate, a transplanted Brit and real estate agent in the nearby village. She brings delicious comic timing to her role. Valeria Bilello offers calm sensitivity as the youthful Natalia, who owns a local restaurant and has marital blues with which to contend. Her ex-husband is arrogance personified. She and Jack deliver a sweet dance around a potential romance.

The restoration of the villa isn’t belabored, although its repairs and cleaning are certainly metaphors for bridging the present to the past. Fondly remembered photographs open deep emotional wounds for father and son. Mistakes will be made. The wrong words incautiously spoken offer traps to reconciliation.

Through it all, the beautiful Tuscan landscape beckons. There’s mention of how, through myriad transformations of nature, the magical land seemingly became a completely perfect place. Questions about where home really is need to be answered.

On a wall in the house is a vivid painting done by Robert as he raged over the passing of his wife. The panting looms over the story but never suffocates it. There’s a clever art reference about it tossed in as a bonus.

“Made In Italy” is a lovely film. There's much to appreciate, including a delightful message on the side: never try to fool the chef.

The movie is suitable for adults and all teenagers. It’s available from On Demand services through cable systems and a variety of streaming options.

Michael Calleri reviews films for the Niagara Gazette and the CNHI news network. Contact him at moviecolumn@gmail.com.

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