Year Released: 2010
Directed by: Gary Winick
Starring: Amanda Seyfried, Vanessa Redgrave, Chris Egan, Gael Garcia Bernal, Franco Nero
(PG, 105 min.)
"But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?" William Shakespeare
In 2010 I found an undiscovered gem. The plot is a gentle drive down rambling country roads, not the roller coaster ride with stomach dropping thrills or tortuous twists we’ve come to expect too often. Its destination is not unexpected, but just as sweet nonetheless, and it recalls something from another era, a sense of grace.
And much of that sense of grace derives from what it omits as well as what it includes. We have characters, not caricatures. Missing also is that stock of summer vulgarity – you know, the bathroom humor, the adolescent sexual buffoonery, and what has become most annoyingly common, the super-sexualized seniors.
What we have instead is a simple story, one that is yes, somewhat predictable, but what romantic comedy isn’t? We know from the beginning that there is something amiss in the romance between Sophie (Amanda Seyfried) and her fiancé Victor (Gael Garcia Bernal), a chef who devotes most of his passion for his pasta instead of Sophie.
What she dubs a pre-honeymoon to Italy is really a business trip for Victor, who is looking for the right wholesalers for his soon to open Italian restaurant in New York. They are in Verona, that city known for the young lovers Romeo and Juliet immortalized by William Shakespeare, but Victor’s ecstasies are for the rounds of cheeses that he inhales like a lover holding a scented handkerchief. He waxes poetic, not about his lovely blond, blue-eyed Sophie, but about the pastry she brings him. His trysts are with dusty bottles of wine instead of her.
So Sophie finds romance where she can, in the enchanted courtyard below what is believed to have been home to the real Juliet of legend, where lovelorn ladies store their heartfelt missives in between the ancient stones. What intrigues the aspiring writer in Sophie is the story of how these letters are answered, one by one, by a cadre of women hired by the city of Verona to do so. Sophie senses as story here and asks if she can observe and help. When she happens upon a long lost letter dated fifty years earlier, she takes the whole day to reply to it.
In real life her reply would have ended in the dead letter office, but this is Hollywood, after all. In that unreal universe Sophie’s reply merits a visit from not only the original sender, a now widowed Claire, played pitch perfect by a still radiant Vanessa Redgrave, but her grandson as well.
He is the outraged Englishman, seething with contempt for whoever has encouraged his beloved grandmother to travel to Italy in what he sees as a futile and painful quest to find her adolescent love. And Charlie (Chris Egan) hits all the right notes as he plays to our negative stereotypes of his countrymen – stiff, snobbish, and persnickety.
He’s an Anglo version from another summer surprise, 2002’s Sweet Home Alabama’s Jake Perry, who with his old coon dog, can of beer, and country boy demeanor fools us into underestimating him as well. Of course we know that Reese Witherspoon’s Melanie is going to end up with Jake instead of her picture perfect New York beau, just as we sense that Sophie will gradually melt the cold Englishman and part from her charming but distracted fiancé. And in both cases, the films avoid cheap shots. How easy if would have been to portray Melanie’s well-heeled beau as somehow deserving rejection; he could have been the uppity New Yorker looking down at her Southern roots, just as Victor in Letters to Juliet could have been vilified to make way for Charlie. It was important to keep Victor sweet and charming, making Sophie’s choice between the two more realistic and subtle.
Much of the charm of the film for me rests with the way the part was written and acted by Vanessa Redgrave. First of all, I’ve had it with the so-called humor of denigrating older characters as foul-mouthed, libidinous, or just plain loopy. Alan Arkin won an Oscar for playing a “foul-mouthed curmudgeon, and a porn-loving pervert” in Little Miss Sunshine, while Betty White takes her loopy grandma from The Proposal to new depths as she continues to explore octogenarian offensiveness on Saturday Night Live. Vanessa Redgrave breaks that cliché and plays Claire as wise and elegant, warm and vulnerable. In her search for her Lorenzo, she meets all the false ones with a grace and humility, drinking in their charm or boorishness in equal measure. She understands her grandson’s shell conceals a soft nature and she hints as much to Sophie, not above a little match making herself.
And perhaps a few real life details bring even more romance to this story. I first saw Vanessa Redgrave in Camelot when it opened in downtown Chicago in December of 1967, the night my husband and I were engaged. He had wrapped the ring up in a series of boxes, each one containing a smaller one. I was really surprised, since I had told him to spend the money on a Grumman canoe instead of a pricey diamond.
But there’s more. Vanessa Redgrave and Franco Nero, who plays her real Lorenzo in this film, have in real life almost lived out this tale. They met filming Camelot in 1966, his Lancelot to her Guinevere, fell in love and eventually had a child a few years later. They went their separate ways for many years, but eventually married in 2006.
The line in the film, “When we speak about love, it’s never too late’’ was written by Franco himself and rings true for the two lovers on and off the screen. Who could resist such pure romance?
Although Sophie begins her quest in Verona, much of her search for Claire’s Lorenzo takes the trio – Sophie, Claire, and her grandson, Charlie – throughout the gorgeous region of Tuscany. The gently rolling hills, and the ancient stone buildings are almost feast enough for the eyes. But we can’t go to Italy, even vicariously, without tasting some of its delicacies.
I’ve chosen a simple yet elegant bruschetta, a grilled bread slice topped with olive oil and other lovely things. Ours features sun-dried tomatoes in oil, toasted pine nuts, and scallions as well as both Parmesan and Provolone. I’m hungry just typing this.
Victor had tasted the likes of this in Verona and fell in love with the ancient grandmother who made it. There’s hope for us all, then, isn’t there?
Another great recipe you might enjoy is Bagna Calda, an Italian “hot bath” dipping sauce that is supreme.
- 1 cup drained and chopped sundried tomatoes in oil
- 1/2 cup chopped toasted pine nuts
- 1/2 cup minced scallions
- 3 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
- 8 ounces shredded Provolone cheese
- Baguette bread slices
Mix together the sundried tomatoes, pine nuts, scallions, and cheeses. Spread over the bread slices. Bake at 400 degrees for about 6 minutes or until golden brown and the cheese is melted. Serve immediately.
Recipe Submitted by Peter Timmons.
Recipe Source: A Taste of Tuscany