Tuscany, the Perfect Movie Set

With gently rolling hills baked by an orange-yellow sun and just about every shade of green gifted to humankind, Tuscany is indeed the ultimate set for the making of a beautiful film. Through the years, many English-language movies have been set in Tuscany. They span the spectrum from action/adventure to cheesy romance to touching, heart wrenching stories. They span history as well, demonstrating to us through lack of change that the imagery of Tuscany is timeless.

For your ease of review, I’ve divided up my favorite Tuscan-set movies into three categories— Action-Packed, Scary, and the largest category: Just Plain Awesome.

Action-Packed

Inferno— Intricate cityscapes of Florence, obscure Renaissance art history secrets, and an aging Tom Hanks giving us one last powerful hurrah as action hero. What’s not to love about Inferno? The movie, based on Dan Brown’s book, is like a 2 hour-long gift to anyone who loves the city of Florence, its art and history. There is a lengthy scene in the grand Palazzo Vecchio as Hanks navigates some roof scaffolding. He finds a clue in the baptismal font within the glorious Baptistry next to the Duomo. There is even a chase scene in the secret corridor that spans the Arno river atop the Pointe Vecchio. It’s all just great.

 

Gladiator— To be fair, the vast majority of this epic film was shot in England, Morocco and Malta. But I included this movie on the list because of the small but vital cameo played by Tuscany. Though Russell Crowe’s character was supposed to be a Roman soldier-turned-slave of Spanish descent (referred to as “the Spaniard”), the home he visits in his dreams, where he sees his deceased wife and son, is in fact a field just outside of Pienza. When at last he is struck down at the end of the movie, his mind drifts away onto a cypress-lined road and through a field of tall wheat stalks over which he runs his hands as he approaches his family. It’s a beautiful and touching scene, and not at all a bad place to go if one must be publicly skewered in a Roman amphitheater.

Quantum of Solace— Daniel Craig returns after his successful run as James Bond in Casino Royale to make this movie, which unfortunately falls a bit flat. However, it’s well worth watching the action-packed early scenes. The first car chase of the movie takes place in Carrara, as in the hill town in western Tuscany from which Michelangelo obtained his marble. Bond and his pursuers race through the windy streets and through a working marble quarry. I haven’t yet been to Carrara but from some Tuscan beach towns you can see it in the hills, white marble gleaming at you like snow in August. It’s fun to see the marble up close in this chase scene. Then, through movie magic, the chase ends in Siena (which is actually over an hour’s drive away), where Bond soon finds himself in a spectacular rooftop chase on foot. Of course, the famous palio horse race happens to be occurring at the time. Only in the movies!

Scary

Hannibal— While not as good as its predecessor Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal does have a lot going for it. For one thing, although Jody Foster sat this one out, the film features Anthony Hopkins in the title role and he’s wonderfully chilling and nightmare-inducing in his subtle, intense and gruesome manner. The movie has a couple of interesting story lines going and is filmed in multiple locations. But it’s the Florentine story that really grabs this viewer. As is the case with Inferno, this movie is a treat to anyone who loves Florence. It really makes the most of the Renaissance birthplace, with scenes on the Ponte Vecchio, in the courtyard of the Uffizi Gallery and in the Piazza Signoria. There’s even a scene in which a character washes blood from his hands using water that pours from il Porcellino, the bronze pig the beckons tourists to touch it for good luck. If you can handle some pretty gross gore, this movie is a good watch. With Hannibal Lector on the loose, Florence, in all of its beauty, has never seemed so creepy.

Twilight, New Moon— For those of you familiar with the cult classic series of films, a reference to the Volturi vampires should evoke chilling images of a somber, murderous group of undead leaders, a creepy, red-eyed Dakota Fanning, and Kristen Stewart sprinting in slow motion through a gorgeous hilltop town in the middle of Tuscany. This, we are told, is the stunning medieval town of Volterra. I looked it up and in fact the suspenseful scene I’m referring to was filmed in Montepulciano. I’ve been to both towns and must admit, I didn’t notice that they pulled a fast one on me. But really it doesn’t matter. Both towns have a similar back-in-time feel that lends itself well to the romantic idea of ancient monsters inhabiting the clock tower.

Just Plain Awesome

Under the Tuscan Sun— This one might be more just plain cheesy than awesome, but the movie is fun and sweet, and I happen to really love the book. My most recent viewing of the movie occurred while I was living in Florence with my family a couple of years ago. Before venturing to the town of Cortona for the weekend, the kids and I decided to dive into Frances Mayes’ story about how she ended up a homeowner in this tiny Tuscan village. The scenery in the movie is just as gorgeous as you’d expect from a film shot in hilltop towns in Tuscany, as well as Florence, Rome and the Amalfi Coast.

Ms. Mayes’ true story, as told in her book, is rich with the beautiful mundane parts of life in a small Tuscan town. She falls madly in love with Cortona, its people and food, buys and fixes up a house at great effort and expense, and then lives a satisfying life there with her husband. The movie version, on the other hand, sets the mundane squarely aside in favor of the dramatic. Mayes is played sweetly by Diane Lane, and her character goes through a painful divorce, moves to Tuscany on a whim, and seems to fit a rocky love story with a smooth Italian boyfriend in along with the house remodel. Cheesy or not, the movie is fun and there’s no shortage of eye candy. (I’m talking about the scenery, not the boyfriend!)

 

 

Stealing Beauty— Bernardo Bertolucci made this movie in the mid-90s and I don’t recall him receiving the acclaim he got for films like Last Tango in Paris and The Last Emperor. Well, I think it’s great.

The movie takes place almost exclusively in a villa in the Chianti region of Tuscany and in the olive groves directly outside. There is only one other set involved- a nearby mansion where a strange party scene occurs. There are some odd moments and interesting characters, but mostly this is just a quietly touching coming-of-age movie about a girl searching for answers about her past. It’s not a unique plot idea, but the movie feels unique. Bertolucci’s directing style seems un-fussy as the camera simply pans wide to show the breathtaking Tuscan backdrop while the drama of the story unfolds. Innocent-faced screen goddess Liv Tyler is perfectly cast as the lead. She seems to float through the movie in her youthful glow, hardly changing her wide-eyed expression. She, and the movie, are a pleasure to watch.

The English Patient— I know it’s long, but who other than Elaine Benes doesn’t secretly (or openly) love this beautiful movie? (Side note: One of my favorite Seinfeld episodes features Elaine imploring the characters on screen to stop telling their stupid story about the stupid desert and die already). Personally, I was captivated by this epic from beginning to end and shed more than a few tears. Two World War II-era love stories unfold as you watch, one drenched in the sands of Northern Africa and the other in a remote and exquisite corner of Tuscany, and the movie reaches a crescendo with its tragic ending of Shakespearean proportions. Ralph Feinnes is distant, mean and dashing in his role, but I really love the female characters in this movie. Kristin Scott Thomas effortlessly embodies 1930s glam, even with sand constantly in her hair. Juliette Binoche is so sweet and sad that even her happy moments break your heart.

Binoche’s character (a nurse) and her unidentified patient occupy a bombed-out monastery in the countryside not far from Pienza. On my most recent visit to Italy, while touring a villa that we have just added to our portfolio of properties, I caught a view of the building that was used in the film. The villa owner had to point it out to me, but the minute she said “English Patient,” I recognized it. The hills and valleys around Pienza, with their olive groves and cypress-lined dirt roads, have changed little since the 1940s, so the movie makers simply filmed the area in its natural, unaltered state. This is the kind of film that stays with you a while after you’ve seen it. The imagery, from the opening scene aerial shots of African sand dunes to the sun flashing through Tuscan cypress trees as the credits roll, is nothing short of haunting.

 

Room with a View— This lovely and fun British romance is based on a book that takes place in Victorian times. The first half of the movie is shot in Florence and the surrounding hills, while the second half is in the English countryside. I always enjoy the intrinsic comedy of British turn-of-the-century dress and behavior. Somehow these people, with corsets and parasols, seem uncomfortable and out of place no matter where they are. But to see them navigate the cobble-stone streets of the Renaissance capital and in the wild Tuscan countryside is even better. An impossibly young-looking Helena Bonham-Carter plays the lead and, though later known for her work in Tim Burton movies, she is the least quirky of the bunch in this film. Maggie Smith is hilarious as the uppity spinster aunt, and Daniel Day-Lewis goes way over the top as an uptight, spectacled aristocrat. It’s really fun to watch.

Any Italophile, and in particular anyone obsessed with Florence, will be rewarded early in the film by Judy Dench’s brilliant performance. Her character, an English lady that has fallen head-over-heels for Florence, enlightens us in her smooth voice about her favorite Tuscan towns. In particular she is taken by Monteriggioni, a medieval castle-town on a hill in the Chianti region. I have spent time there, as one of our properties is walking distance to the town’s wall. Dench assures us that in Monteriggioni, “one meets the Italians unspoiled, in all their simplicity and charm.” A tad snooty, sure, but when she gushes about Tuscan hilltop towns and Florentine sights, sounds and smells, you almost can’t help but stop what you’re doing and google flights to Italy.

If life isn’t bringing you to Italy anytime soon, I hope this list of films will help you find your perfect Tuscan escape.