Welcome back to the mid-1990s, the heyday of picture-perfect period pieces, in which typically a stodgy Brit would become transformed, spiritually and otherwise, by the sunny skies and earthy locals of seductive Italy. Remember Enchanted April or A Month by the Lake? That’s not to overlook the E.M. Forster adaptations that became a de facto art-house franchise: A Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread.
The new Canadian/Dutch production Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle doesn’t quite measure up to the literary aspirations of those aforementioned films, all based on acclaimed English novels. Nor does it provide much of an acting showcase for the cast, besides asking its actors to take on stereotypical roles and stretch them as far as they can go.
However, this mostly good-humored movie offers a loopy and wild ride, making it the sort of curio that fits well within a larger festival such as the Toronto International Film Festival, where it premiered today. Of course, not every film out of the 266 features screening at the event is going to be a masterpiece or even very good. However, this old-fashioned film is at least refreshing in its determination to simply entertain, though wobbly told by director Mike van Diem, whose first film, Character, won the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award in 1998.
Beginning in 1980, a beautiful, ivory-skinned redhead from Montreal, Anna (Ksenia Solo), ventures to her recently deceased mother’s Italian hometown—the region of Puglia, to be exact—to scatter mama’s ashes. A movie location of note, the southern coastal province has served filmmakers well with its distinctive lunar landscape and cone-shaped dwellings carved into the hillsides (like in Passion of the Christ).
In a case of being at the right place at the right time, Anna is immediately taken under the wings of Immacolata (Lidia Vitale), an officious busybody who is the proprietor of the café, which is the town’s focal point, and her 37–ish bachelor son, Vito (Michele Venitucci). Together, mother and son unlock the secrets of Anna’s family, stringing out, anecdote by anecdote, the identities of Anna’s mother and father, who has taken on a mythic reputation in the village. It’s all told in flashbacks within flashbacks to an amused and little-used Giancarlo Giannini, as a bemused police inspector. (How he fits into the puzzle is yet another detour.)
Cut to 1953, when a lanky, red-headed, bearded Dutch farmer, Gauke (a generally stern Gijs Naber), flees the Netherlands during the catastrophic North Sea flood that in real life claimed more than 2,500 lives. In one of the film’s bizarre subplots, Gauke pursues a silent courtship with another refugee, a young woman with flowing red hair (Anneke Sluiters). Without saying a word to her and only exchanging glances during dinner, Gauke wakes her up in the middle of the night and, with 40 other people sleeping nearby, climbs into her bed. With no foreplay, she mounts him. What may be more audacious about this encounter is that no one else wakes up—or takes a peek. Oddly, he decides to creep away out of the country in the middle of that specific night.
After slipping a note under the young woman’s pillow, he gathers what little he has and rides his bicycle all the way from the Low Countries to warmer climes, the heel of Italy. Gaunt and tired from his long journey, he collapses and staggers into the nearest town. He has taken his most prized possessions on this trek: tulip bulbs. After buying a farm and quickly learning Italian in movie-time, he sends a letter off to the young woman (How he got her address, who knows?) from the shelter. When she suddenly turns up in the village, Gauke finally learns her name, Ria (Anneke Sluiters), and also that she’s deaf and has given birth to his baby girl, Anna. The fair Ria is the most beautiful woman that the little tot Vito (Gianni Pezzolla), and probably the rest of townsmen, has ever seen. All stare gobsmacked as she breastfeeds in public.
Gauke, Ria, and baby Anna become part of the town’s social and economic fabric, and when the newly-planted tulips pop up, money is made from the sale of the exotic item, which catches the attention of the local mafia. In a confrontation between the hoods and Gauke, a touch of spaghetti Western is mixed in with the martial arts of The Matrix, believe it or not. No one could accuse Tulipani of being staid.
More than once, the story veers off-course for a film running on cornpone comedy. It often turns into a bummer. Let’s see, there’s a miscarriage, a grisly murder, and the craziest form of revenge, straight out of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. And let’s not forget an act of sodomy, which occurs in the middle of the piazza with the entire village as an amused audience.
So over the course of events, a Northerner saves the day, and an Italian mother tightens her apron strings around her adult son. This long-winded tall tale concludes just as the audience knew it would, with a coupling that had been foreseen from the get-go. But in this movie’s case, predictably becomes a saving grace after all the strange goings-on.