Made in Italy
⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
Stars: Liam Neeson, Micheál Richardson, Valeria Bilello, Lindsay Duncan, Yolanda Kettle
Writer/Director: James D’Arcy
I’m all for any film that manages to pry a gun from the hands of Liam Neeson.
Made in Italy, the story of an estranged father and son rebuilding their relationship as they attempt to renovate an old family estate in Tuscany, isn’t up there with such classic father-son dramas as Life Is Beautiful, Big Fish, and Bicycle Thieves — but neither is it Taken, or The A-Team, or Commuter, or any of those other slam-bang shoot-’em-ups that make a lot of money for Neeson, but ultimately waste the talents of the man who is easily one of our most gifted screen actors.
Neeson plays Robert, a world-famous painter who abruptly retreated from the art world following his wife’s death in a car crash. He’s also backed away from his son Jack — played with earnest abandon by Micheál Richardson — to the point where the pair hardly speak, even though Jack is a successful art gallery manager.
Well, he was a successful art gallery manager — until the opening scene, when his business is abruptly yanked from him by his vengeful ex-wife Ruth. Jack decides to try and buy the gallery back from her, but that would mean cashing out his half of the family’s Tuscan villa — which would also mean approaching his distant dad.
Robert is surprisingly amenable to the plan, however, and just a transition scene or two later we are in sunny Italy, where the once-grand, now-dilapidated home awaits them. They get straight to work hauling weeds and painting — bickering endlessly but, admirably, never walking away from a tiff. Writer/director James D’Arcy — making his first feature film — offers a story with twists we can see coming like meatballs with spaghetti, but he has lucked into a cast that can still add some paprika to his otherwise bland piatto principale. Among the supporting players, Lindsay Duncan, the spirited English actress who was so spellbinding as the ever-hopeful wife in 2013’s Le Week-end, makes the most of her part as a pithy real estate agent and possible love interest for the artist. Not so fortunate is Yolanda Kettle as Jack’s bitter ex Ruth, who is so relentlessly angry we can’t help but think Jack did something absolutely awful to her.
We never do learn what happened between them — a major missing element in Jack’s backstory — but of course the entire film is building up to the revelation of why Jack and Robert have drifted apart. The moment arrives, fittingly, in the film’s best scene, a wonderfully acted dialogue that takes place in a dusty upper room, a place where Robert has secretly assembled an artist’s shrine to his late wife.
Shredding their facades of cordiality and tearing open their decade-old wounds, father and son brawl, bawl, and ultimately embrace not only each other, but the shared tragedy that has shaped their lives. It’s an extraordinary scene played with an intensity — and filmed with a tight focus — that reminded me of that shattering finale in Mike Nichols’ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, Neeson and Richardson seem to be mining some vein of emotion that extends far beyond the movie set.
And of course, they are: Until this film, Micheál Richardson has been known as Micheál Neeson. They are father and son, and in 2009 Liam’s wife and Micheál’s mother, Natasha Richardson, died in a skiing accident. Now, dear reader, be advised your humble reviewer happens to be one of a rare breed who spends little time trafficking in celebrity news and gossip, and so I had not the slightest idea that these two actors were in any way related until I set about writing this review. I don’t think an artist’s craft should be judged by his or her private life (hence my stubborn appreciation of Woody Allen), but knowing what I know now, I am tempted to re-visit Made in Italy for a second look.
One scene can a movie make, and this one, coming just under the wire, makes Made in Italy more memorable than anyone might have expected.
Featured image: Liam Neeson and Micheál Richardson in Made in Italy (Courtesy IFC Films)