By Craig Leask
In Part Two of our film travel series we are now progressing on to Italy and those films which show off the beauty of the country. Italy is known for its range of stunning landscapes and cities, its amazing history and romantic culture and as they say, has “la dolce vita” meaning simply, “the sweet life”. Italy has been a favorite place to film movies for decades, starting with its own movie industry and home-grown directors, including Federico Fellini (1920-1993), Vittorio De Sica (1901 – 1974) and Roberto Rossellini (1906–1977) to name but a very few.
The following are my selections of Italian films which beautifully depict the aesthetics of Italy. As established in Part One, these selections are not necessarily based upon cinematic excellence, but on the view and attractiveness they portray of the country and the visual escape they provide.
A ROOM WITH A VIEW (1986)
Based on the 1908 novel of the same name by E.M. Forster, who also wrote “Howards End” (1910) and “A Passage to India” (1924), A Room With a View follows the adventures of a young Englishwoman, Lucy Honeychurch (Helena Bonham-Carter) and her chaperone Charlotte Bartlett (Maggie Smith), throughout their experiences as they holiday in Florence.
Upon arriving at the Pensione Bertolini (the Villa di Maiano in actuality), the two ladies are immediately disappointed to learn their rooms do not have the promised view of the River Arno. At dinner they meet other the English residents staying at the pensione including: two elderly sisters, the Misses Alan (Fabia Drake and Joan Henley), Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott) and his handsome and common-sense son George (Julian Sands), who gallantly agree to trade rooms with the women so they could obtain their cherished view.
Director James Ivory brilliantly treats Florence as the main reason to watch the first part of the film. His camera beautifully following the two women as they explore the city’s famous squares, the Piazza della Signoria and its 16th-century Fountain of Neptune, Piazza Santa Croce, the Church of Santa Croce, and nearby Fiesole, the location of the barley field where George (Julian Sands) seizes the moment to impulsively embrace and kiss Lucy.
The film closes with newlyweds George and Lucy honeymooning at the Italian pensione where they first met, in the room with a view, overlooking Florence’s Duomo.
As a visitor, you can still rent room 414 of the Pensione Bertolini where Lucy stayed. The pensione, now renovated and renamed the Hotel degli Orafi, still retains that spectacular view.
A Room with a View was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning three, for Ruth Prawer Jhabvala screenplay, as well as Best Costume and Best Production Design.
CINEMA PARADISO (1988)
Cinema Paradiso is an odd and charming film told mainly through flashbacks, following world famous film director Salvatore Di Vita (Jacques Perrin as an adult) as he revisits his peasant childhood in the tiny Sicilian village of Giancaldo. His return after a 30-year absence is to attend the funeral of his friend and mentor Alfredo (Philippe Noiret), who preceded him as the projectionist at the local “Cinema Paradiso”, a building which is now condemned. Not only has Alfredo bequeathed his love of movies to Salvatore but also an unlabeled film reel and the stool that Salvatore had used as a child to reach and operate the cinema’s projector.
The storyline is fairly simple, but Cinema Paradiso is above all else a celebration of the love of film. As a projectionist young Salvatore, nicknamed Totò (Marco Leonardi), is passionate about films. This natural passion encouraged by Alfredo, provides the basis for his career choices in adulthood. The film provides a look into life in impoverished, post-war Italy under the influence of strong church morals. The local priest has claimed the role of censorship authority, approving what is and what is not appropriate to be shown in the town’s only cinema. With this self-appointed authority, the church had banned all scenes involving any kissing or romantic embracing between two actors – each time a scene involving passion appeared, the priest would chime a bell, requiring Alfredo to physically cut the scene from the celluloid reel. The deleted scenes litter the small projection room floor. Each deleted scene leading to boos and jeering from the audience as the film disjointedly jumps scenes.
Cinema Paradiso was filmed completely on location – in director Tornatore’s hometown of Bagheria, Sicily, standing in as Giancaldo, as well as in Cefalù, which is on the Tyrrhenian Sea. The ‘Paradiso’ cinema set was constructed in the Piazza Umberto in the village of Palazzo Adriano overlooking the historic central fountain – the set was dismantled following filming.
The war-damaged section of the village where Toto walks with his worried mother is actually the ruins of Poggioreale, an historic town and commune which was not destroyed during the war as implied in the film, but by the 1968 Belice Valley earthquake. The site is now a ghost town with the original village having been reconstructed several kilometres away from the earthquake zone.
The film ends with Salvatore alone in a darkened screening room with the bequeathed unlabeled film being loaded onto a projector. The film starts and, to the “Love Theme” music by Ennio Morricone, reveals a montage of the romantic scenes that Alfredo had been ordered to cut from the movies. Carefully spliced together, the 47 sequences have become one cohesive film of lustful desire and tender embraces.
Cinema Paradiso won the “Grand Prix du Jury” at the Cannes Film Festival as well as winning both the Academy and the Golden Globe awards for Best Foreign Language Film. In 2010, the film was ranked #27 in Empire magazine’s “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema”. The film is often credited for the revival of Italian cinema – producing such award-winning films as Mediterraneo (1991) and Life Is Beautiful (1997) – and was a critical and box-office success and has been identified by many as a classic.
The film’s famed love scene finale can be seen here
UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN (2003)
Under The Tuscan Sun (2003) was directed by Audrey Wells and is based upon the Frances Mayes 1996 memoir “Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy” in which she chronicled her family’s purchase and restoration of an abandoned villa in Tuscany called “Bramasole”, which literally means “something that yearns for the sun”. Filming took place at a nearby house “Villa Laura”, which was built in 1504 outside the ancient town of Cortona some 100 kilometres southeast of Florence. While the movie does change some key points from both the book, which is focused much more on the house, Bramasole itself and Frances Mayes’ actual life, the movie is a delightful way to experience a love of the Tuscan countryside from the comfort of your own living room.
In the movie the initial shots of the house show a forgotten and abandoned home in a dark a ruined state, mirroring the mental state of the main character. As the film progresses and the villa is renovated, so too is the life of the fictitious Francis (Diane Lane) as she rediscovers herself and creates a new home, a new family and a new life. In keeping with the underlying premise of the book (that being a Love affair with Tuscany), most of the filming was on location throughout Italy – Florence, Positano, Rome and Montepulciano. Specific locations include: Cortona in Arezzo, the Piazza Grande in Montepulciano, Cassa di Risparmio di Firenzein Florence, and even a tribute to the famous scene from La Dolce Vita (1960) with Marcello Mastroianni and Anita Ekberg dancing in the Trevi Fountain, filmed for Under The Tuscan Sun in the fountain of Cortona at the park of Parterre with Vincent Riotta and Lindsay Duncan.
Under the Tuscan Sun is the perfect travelogue for Tuscany. There is the touristy introduction, complete with a bus load of sightseers visiting the sites and writing postcards home; the traditional centuries old ceremonies in ancient city squares; large Italian family dinners complete with traditional local dishes and the romance and beauty of the unspoiled countryside.
For those readers who want a taste of Tuscan life, Villa Laura, which can sleep 18 is, at the time of writing, available as a weekly vacation rental.
LETTERS TO JULIET (2010)
I must start by admitting that this is the film that inspired me to write this series on Armchair Travelling Through Film. Yes, it’s a typical “chick flick” and as such is extremely predictable – girl meets boy, girl and boy antagonize one other, girl and boy go on an adventure and end up falling in love. Just like in real life! What makes this girl meets boy flick alluring though, is the setting. The romantic comedy is filmed throughout Verona and the beautiful countryside of Tuscany.
Letters to Juliet follows Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), employed as a fact-checker at the New Yorker magazine with dreams of becoming a journalist. While on a vacation in Verona with her fiancé, Sophie tours the city ending up in the courtyard containing the home of the fictitious Juliet Capulet and a bronze statue of Juliet where tourists perform the creepy ritual of rubbing her right breast for luck in love (creepy once you realize that the fictional Juliet was a 13-year-old child when Shakespeare penned the 1597 play “Romeo and Juliet”). “Juliet’s House” as it is known, has famously become a place for young people to leave letters to the “Club de Giuietta” (the secretaries of Juliet) asking for advice and answers about challenges facing their love lives.
In reality, the letters to Juliet are posted in a box inside the Casa di Giulietta (House of Juliet) museum, where they are retrieved and answered by the “Club de Giulietta”, an organization staffed with volunteers who provide written answers to all letters. However, finding a letter which has been misplaced for half a century behind a mailbox is not as dramatic as finding one tucked into an ancient courtyard wall. For the film, the production crew had a faux wall constructed within the square into which the letters could be tucked – the fake wall making it easy for Sophie to loosen the brick revealing the 50-year-old letter. Thus begins a search throughout Tuscany with Sophie, Claire who is the author of the mislaid letter (Vanessa Redgrave), and Claire’s skeptical grandson Charlie (Christopher Egan) to find Claire’s long-lost love.
Filming Letters to Juliet director Gary Winick took full advantage of the beautiful Tuscan countryside, Siena and Verona, having the group reside at the spectacular Relais Borgo Scopeto Hotel, a renovated historic Tuscan estate outside of Siena. The balance of the film has the trio exploring Siena’s various plazas: Piazza del Campo; Piazza Tolomei and the idealistic Piazza San Giovanni where Sophie and Charlie romantically enjoy some local gelato. Showing the Tuscan countryside at its most beautiful, Winick takes the small group to various vineyards, farms and even a cemetery before ending up at the picture-perfect Caparzo S.R.L Vineyard/Winery and the home of the very established and conveniently widowed Lorenzo Bartollini, the lost love.
Honorable Mention: With a country like Italy there is an almost endless list of films which bestow the country’s virtues, sometimes better than the ones I have included above, thus I feel I would be doing a disservice if I did not include the following who greatly deserve to also be on this list:
- Roman Holiday (1953) Directed by William Wyler and staring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, the film is about a bored princess running away from her royal duties to explore Rome. Filmed on location throughout the famous sites and streets of Rome, the film beautifully displays the city’s magic and charm as experienced by a first-time visitor to the Italian capital.
- Romeo and Juliet (1968) Directed by Franco Zefferelli, the most successful and critically acclaimed adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, and filmed on location throughout Rome, Pienza in Siena and Gubbio in Perugia with interior scenes filmed in Rome’s Palazzo Borghese.
- Amarcord (1973) Directed by Federico Fellini based on his own experiences growing up in 1930’s Fascist Italy, shot in Rome’s Cinecittà Studios with exterior scenes filmed on location throughout Rimini and Rome.
- Enchanted April (1991) Directed by Mike Newell, a charming film about a group of four English women with little in common, who decide to share the rent on an Italian villa for the month of April to escape from the dreary British weather. Filmed on location at “Castello Brown” a 16th century fortified villa high on a hill overlooking the village of Portofino and its active port.
- Il Postino (1994) Directed by Michael Radford, this beautifully shot film follows a simple village mailman as he pursues the woman he loves. Filmed on the Sicilian islands of Salina and Procida.
- Tea with Mussolini (1999) Directed by Franco Zeffirelli about a of a group of privileged, elderly British women living in Italy during WWII who take it upon themselves to care for a young local boy. The film set in Florence during the rise of fascism, was filmed throughout the Tuscan countryside, Siena’s Piazza Della Cisterna and in the Collegiate Church in San Gimignano.
- The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) Directed by Anthony Minghella is a psychological thriller about murder and assumed identities set throughout 1950’s Italy. The film’s stunning cinematography showcases the Italian beauty of Ischia Island, Rome, Positano and Venice
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.