Sometimes, elements of a movie will come together in a way that seems like what can only be described as fate. You can certainly say that regarding the casting of the leads for “Made in Italy,” a new comedy/drama that’s actor James D’Arcy’s feature debut as writer and director. The film stars Liam Neeson and his son Micheál Richardson as an estranged father and son still reeling from the sudden death of their wife and mother. It’s a scenario that Neeson and Richardson unfortunately are all too familiar with; in 2009, Neeson’s wife and Micheál’s mother, actress Natasha Richardson, passed away suddenly after suffering a brain injury while skiing. The pair bring a real sense of love and grief to their performances, elevating D’Arcy’s already touching script to new heights.
Richardson plays Jack, a young man who runs an art gallery in London alongside his wife, who has separated from him and is seeking a divorce that Jack is reluctant to grant. Neeson plays Robert, a once renowned painter who lost the drive to create after his wife Raffaela died in a car accident when Jack was a child. Wanting to buy the gallery but lacking the funds, Jack decides to sell the villa in Tuscany that he inherited from his mother, and where his family used to spend their holidays when he was a kid. Jack drags a reluctant Robert with him to Italy to look over the property, which it doesn’t take long to see is in great disrepair and in need of a lot of fixing up before they can even hope to sell it. With the help of some locals, including a shrewd realtor named Kate (Lindsay Duncan), Robert and Jack set about repairing the property, and mending their own troubled relationship in the process. Jack also starts to fall for a local restaurant owner, Natalia (Valeria Bilello), who has her own problems with her ex-husband.
You don’t have to get very far into “Made in Italy” to get a strong sense of how this story is going to end. But it’s how we reach that ending that’s important, and D’Arcy crafted a story that contains just the right balance of light humor and emotional drama to invest the viewer in the characters and what will happen to them. The film begins on a more comedic note, as the state of the run-down home and Robert and Jack’s contentious relationship are used for humor. The story becomes more serious as the film progresses, but it’s a gradual and natural enough change that the shift in tone doesn’t feel too jarring. The focus does at times shift more toward the romance between Jack and Natalia and not the father/son relationship that’s at the heart of the story, and a bit of the dialogue, particularly toward the end of the film, is almost eye-roll inducing in its corniness. But outside of those few minor qualms, this is a strong first film from D’Arcy as a writer/director. It’s breezy, heartwarming, and full of meaningful character moments—not to mention beautiful.
It doesn’t hurt that “Made in Italy” was filmed on location in gorgeous Tuscany (although, despite what we see on screen, the cast and crew have attested to the fact that the weather was horrendous while they were there). The scenes set in the town, from Natalia’s bustling restaurant to the townspeople crowding into the square for an outdoor movie night, depict an enviably easy-going slice of life, made almost sad to watch—as happy as the scenes are—knowing that the way the world is right now, we can’t go there and have those experiences. The views from Raffaela’s home on the hill are even more stunning. D’Arcy uses the almost painterly quality of the landscapes to frame the film’s most beautiful shot, as Robert faces the camera, perfectly describing the composition of the scene behind him to Jack.
The cast is small but great, with Bilello imbuing her character with a lot of warmth, and Duncan providing a dry sense of humor. But as mentioned before, the film really pivots around the relationship between Robert and Jack. How close the relationship between their characters in the movie does or does not resemble their relationship in real life is anyone’s guess, but there’s no denying that there’s something really genuine in their performances. A scene later in the film between Robert and Jack, where Jack reflects on the childhood he feels like he lost and Robert opens up about the guilt he felt after Raffaela’s death, is incredibly moving and features some really great work from both actors. This isn’t Richardson’s first movie, but he proves that he is one to watch. And it feels like it’s been a while since we’ve seen Neeson play a more tender role, but one that still possesses all the gruff characteristics we’ve come to associate with his more recent action roles.
“Made in Italy” is a delight to watch, even in its heavier moments, which resolve in a finale that will leave you feeling warm, no matter how clichéd it may be. And it may just have you looking out for flights to Italy for when we’re no matter living in the midst of a global pandemic.
“Made in Italy” will be released in select theaters and on video on demand on Friday, August 7. Runtime: 94 minutes. Rated R. 4 out of 5 stars.
Media review link courtesy IFC Films.