How on Earth does a movie set amidst the sun, vineyards, food and earthy-sexy sensualists of Tuscany turn out as drab as Helsignor during a mid-winter rain?
“Toscana” is an Around the World with Netflix stab at “Italian for Beginners,” another story of stoic Scandinavians turning lighter and sunnier via exposure to Italy, Italians and the Italian food, culture and lifestyle. It’s a “stab” that mises the mark widely enough to matter.
Anders Matthesen stars as Theo, a hard-driving 50ish chef whose famous attention to detail extends to the table settings he triple checks and his kitchen, which he guards like a hawk because no matter how big his kitchen “crew,” “nobody cleans up after me” (in Danish, or dubbed into English).
But on the make-or-break day Theo must deliver and dazzle to a gauche, new-money investor-bro, he gets the news that his estranged father has passed away in far-off Tuscany. Buttoned-down, repressed Dane Theo keeps it together only so long before that arbitrary moment when he snaps and cusses out that “bro” (Sebastian Jessen) and lets down his crew and his manager (Lærke Winther).
Their last hope of fresh cash must be in Italy. His dad left the worn villa and “ristorante” Ristonchi” to him. A “quick sale” and they’ll be flush enough to carry on.
But “quick” anything is going to be a problem in Italy. And that would be funny in any other film covering this very familiar “Under the Tuscan Sun” transformation storyline.
But writer-director Mehdi Avaz, apparently new to comedy, can’t manage it.
Theo can’t find the lawyer/executor of the estate Pino (Andrea Bosca). Theo visits the ristorante, and Gordon Ramsay-fashion, finds everything there lacking. Throw in a little Northern European “don’t drink the water” prejudice, among other prejudices (the kitchen is filthy), and watch the sparks fly.
Only they don’t. Not for a moment.
His sarcastic, seen-it-all waitress Sophia (Cristiana Dell’Anna) dismisses him until she learns who he is. But there’s no apologizing. She grew up here, under Theo’s father Geo’s roof, raised like his daughter. She is Roma, but “feisty” barely figures into it. She may not be thrilled Theo is set to sell the place, but Dell’Anna plays that with resignation, not resistance.
The “magical” conversion scenes, where Theo tastes the olive oil and bread, the only thing Ristonchi has going for it, visits the vast aging warehouse for the local cheeses and such aren’t magical in the least.
Matthesen doesn’t play a single moment in this light and “fun.”
And the wedding banquet, which Theo decides to cater, partly to impress a potential buyer for the Italian property, and partly to impress, honor and “repay” Sophia (it’s her wedding), has a few mouth-watering moments, but no funny, sunny or even sweet ones.
The big emotion here is melancholy, shocking for a Dane I know, but ill-suited to the subject matter and aims of “Toscana.” Theo’s daddy issues have to be resolved, along with him surrendering to Italy’s charms, pace and ethos.
I didn’t buy that transition for a minute.
All “Toscana” has to offer is some decent (limited) scenery, a little taste of high-end cooking, and a love story that’s about as romantic as the one The Bard set in foggy Helsignor.
At least nobody kills herself this time round.
Rating: TV-MA, profanity
Cast: Anders Matthesen, Cristiana Dell’Anna, Lærke Winther and Andrea Bosca
Credits: Scripted and directed by Mehdi Avaz. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:33