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.

GILBERT ADAIR ON `TEA WITH MUSSOLINI', PAGE 5

Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv'The Last Kingdom' embraces politics, religion, warfare, courage, love and loyalty, say creators
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

film
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
News
peopleThe Game of Thrones author said speculation about his health and death was 'offensive'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Caral Barat of The Libertines performs on stage at British Summer Time Festival at Hyde Park

music
Arts and Entertainment
Ariana Grande and Iggy Azalea perform on stage at the Billboard Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Zina Saro-Wiwa

art
Arts and Entertainment
All-new couples 'Come Dine With Me'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Black Sabbath's Ozzy Osbourne
musicReview: BST Hyde Park, London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Gamble and Amy Hoggart star in Almost Royal burning bright productions
tvTV comedy following British ‘aristos’ is accused of mocking the trusting nature of Americans
Arts and Entertainment
Sassoon threw his Military Cross into the Mersey
booksAn early draft of ‘Atrocities’ shows the anti-war sentiment was toned down before publication
Arts and Entertainment
Actors and technicians on the march against changes made by Hollande
theatreOpening performances of the Avignon theatre festival cancelled as actors and technicians walk out
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West performed in a chain mail mask at Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park
Rapper booed at Wireless over bizarre rant
Arts and Entertainment

They're back, they're big – and they're still spectacularly boring

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice
    Hollywood targets Asian audiences as US films enjoy record-breaking run at Chinese box office

    Hollywood targets Asian audiences

    The world's second biggest movie market is fast becoming the Hollywood studios' most crucial
    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app - and my mum keeps trying to hook me up!'

    Grindr founder Joel Simkhai: 'I've found love on my dating app'

    Five years on from its launch and Grindr is the world's most popular dating app for gay men. Its founder Joel Simkhai answers his critics, describes his isolation as a child
    Autocorrect has its uses but it can go rogue with embarrassing results - so is it time to ditch it?

    Is it time to ditch autocorrect?

    Matthew J X Malady persuaded friends to message manually instead, but failed to factor in fat fingers and drunk texting
    10 best girls' summer dresses

    Frock chick: 10 best girls' summer dresses

    Get them ready for the holidays with these cool and pretty options 
    Westminster’s dark secret: Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together

    Westminster’s dark secret

    Adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism and abuse of children were all seemingly lumped together
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Dulce et decorum est - a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Dulce et decorum est: a life cut short for a poet whose work achieved immortality
    Google tells popular music website to censor album cover art in 'sexually explicit content' ban

    Naked censorship?

    The strange case of Google, the music website and the nudity take-down requests
    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    Howzat! 8 best cricket bats

    As England take on India at Trent Bridge, here is our pick of the high-performing bats to help you up your run-count this summer 
    Brazil vs Germany World Cup 2014 comment: David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    David Luiz falls from leader figure to symbol of national humiliation

    Captain appears to give up as shocking 7-1 World Cup semi-final defeat threatens ramifications in Brazil