Terracotta remembered hills

Film-makers follow the Chiantishire herd when they depict Tuscany as a fantasyland of earthenware and peasants, writes Jasper Rees
Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful, the winner of three Oscars, will go down in the film encyclopaedias as the movie that brokered a union between comedy and the concentration camp. In the sandstorm of outrage kicked up by this strange marriage, the film's other incongruity has been obscured. This is that rare movie in which the forces of history - in the form of Fascism, then Nazism - come to good old Tuscany.

It's not a Tuscany that most filmgoers will recognise. The first half of Life is Beautiful is shot in the bourgeois urban locale of Arezzo. The English Patient passed through there a couple of years ago, but only to admire Piero della Francesca's fresco cycle, The Legend of the True Cross. By contrast most film-makers prefer to stick to tourist-trail Florence and the surrounding countryside - because Tuscany is cinema's premier fantasy location. Film-makers go there in the same spirit as someone attending one of those watercolour courses in Chianti, to quiver at the shimmering duet of light and landscape. It is a kind of topographical sex symbol, and you never get to see beyond the inviting contours.

Only last summer Michael Hofmann, director of the flimsy romantic comedy One Fine Day, descended on the region to make a big-budget version of A Midsummer Night's Dream starring Kevin Kline, Michelle Pfeiffer, Rupert Everett and Calista Flockhart. It's stereotyping of the most obvious kind to get Tuscany to play the Athenian wood, and you almost feel as if you've seen the movie already. But that's the history of Tuscany on film. Only a few years ago Kenneth Branagh was in the neighbourhood filming a sterile Much Ado About Nothing, featuring much suntanned gambolling on verdant hilltops.

Although none of his Italian plays is set there, Tuscany is the knee- jerk choice to locate Shakespeare's comedies because that quality of enchantment is taken by outsiders to be a kind of indigenous produce, to be harvested like extra virgin olive oil and Brunello di Montalcino. That's why Tuscan winters rarely feature: Tuscany is a place where things are required to grow - not only flowers and vines, but also love and self-awareness.

E M Forster is to blame. His two Italian novels - A Room With A View and Where Angels Fear To Tread - reinvented Tuscany as a field of dreams where characters go to moult their own northern inhibition and give rein to inchoate desires. Helena Bonham Carter took the key role in both film versions, because she is very good at picking the lock on a character's soul. The sub-Forsterian film which most cravenly plugs into this pursuit of sensory abandon is Enchanted April, a thin-blooded concoction Mike Newell made before Four Weddings and A Funeral. Set in the 1920s, it tells of an ensemble of desiccated Anglos whose emotions are unblocked by a brief sojourn on the Tuscan coast (which actually looked more like Liguria, but never mind).

Much more profound films are not above making the same assumptions. Andrei Tarkovsky's penultimate film, Nostalgia, about a Russian academic researching the life of an expatriate composer, was set in a minuscule spa in the Val d'Orcia called Bagno Vignoni. The village is little more than a vast stone-walled pond rimmed by hotels, and Tarkovsky used its steaming sulphurous waters as a metaphor for the cleansing of the spirit. Even The English Patient, made by Anthony Minghella, a British director with a full complement of Italian blood, falls under the Tuscan spell. In the Second World War, Juliette Binoche's nurse hops off an Allied convoy to shelter a badly burned Ralph Fiennes in a disused monastery. The region is a blur of military activity, and pocked with German mines, but it's as if she's stepping into her own private time warp. In the final shot of The English Patient, Binoche climbs on to a truck and drives out of Tuscany with a smile of contentment on her face. Foreigners are always doing that at the end of movies set in Tuscany, just like any other tourist.

The idea that Tuscany is a foreigner's chimerical neverland has taken root so deeply that when Bernardo Bertolucci set Stealing Beauty in the heart of Chianti, he peopled it with ghastly English roues and an American ingenue, and shot it in a replica of the house of two of the region's best known expats: the artists Matthew Spender and Maro Gorki. You might easily suppose that the stolen beauty of the title is actually Tuscany itself, and that the thieves are the foreign interlopers. But it was too unsophisticated a film for that. It's just another bad movie about Tuscany.

So it's no wonder eyeballs roll and yawns are stifled when Tuscany turns up on screen. It only ever stars in films about people on holiday. But you get an entirely different view of the place in films where characters abandon Tuscany at the outset. In Queen of Hearts, Jon Amiel's charming debut about a family of Italian immigrants in London, the plot kicks off in the stone towers of San Gimignano. For the two young lovers who elope by leaping into a hay cart from the summit of one of the towers, their Tuscan home represents the oppressiveness of roots and tradition. In Paolo and Vittorio Taviani's Good Morning Babylon, two unemployed Pisan stonemasons take their skills to Hollywood because there is no more work in their native Tuscany.

A foreign film-maker would have stuck around in Pisa and shot the Romanesque masonry. But the Taviani brothers are Tuscan, and no one is that dreamy about their own backyard. Benigni, of course, is another Tuscan - he comes from Prato, near Florence. It's probable that no Tuscan has reached such a wide audience since Michelangelo.

Last summer, another Tuscan director went home. Tea With Mussolini, by Franco Zeffirelli, is set in the same Fascist 1930s as Life is Beautiful. It chronicles the relationship between a Florentine boy and three elderly English ladies. It is Zeffirelli's most autobiographical film yet, based on the bond he formed with a set of snobbish but hugely cultured expats. The scorpioni, as they are called, love Italy, and would love it even more if it didn't contain quite so many Italians. They are played by the formidable trio of Tuscan veterans, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Joan Plowright, with Cher and Lily Tomlin thrown in as a couple of salty American broads. The script is co-written by John Mortimer, author of the Tuscan ur-novel Summer's Lease. Smith's wholly fictional character, the widow of a British ambassador, is a devotee of Mussolini and once took tea with him, only to be interred, along with the rest of the ladies, during the war, as a foreign national. And guess where her prison is? Star of Where Angels Fear To Tread, dear old San Gimignano, where they end up sand-bagging Ghirlandaio's fresco of Santa Fina, and saving the towers from detonation.

In other words, Tea With Mussolini is a rare hybrid. Like Stealing Beauty, it acknowledges the Anglo-Saxon weakness for sensory Tuscan pleasures. But like Life is Beautiful it accepts that the forces of history are as integral to the place as the olive groves, the cypresses and the tempting curves of the hills. The light which is so seductive for film-makers has no narrative value without a glimpse of the darkness.