‘Made In Italy’: Liam Neeson and Micheál Richardson Travel to Tuscany for Father-Son Journey of Healing
“Made In Italy” begins almost deceptively. When a film opens with a divorce, financial woes, a house full of memories and lush Tuscany vistas, then introduces the inevitable love interest, we think it’s obvious what this is about. But then it becomes something more. A closer inspection of the roster reveals how much a dance of unique talents this film is. Actor James D’Arcy makes his directorial debut, casting Liam Neeson and Neeson’s son Micheál Richardson. The result is a film infused with a feeling that is always personal and real, even in its pleasantness.
The story is of Jack (Richards), who is getting divorced and would like funds to buy the art gallery he used to run with his now ex-wife. He joins his father, Robert (Neeson), a bohemian London artist, to Tuscany to sell off a once beautiful villa inherited from Robert’s deceased wife, Jack’s mother. Abandoned, dusty, the villa’s beauty is now hidden under a dilapidated shell. Yet both men hold on to memories of happier times spent here. Suddenly the realization that the house will be sold brings out tensions and hidden memories. Jack also meets Natalia (Valeria Bilello), a local chef also dealing with separation and its outcomes. The kind of decisions that need to be made are crystalized by a wall in the villa, splashed with waves of color by Robert years ago to express his sorrow. Consenting to painting over it could mean surrendering the past.
“It came about mainly because I wanted to act,” D’Arcy began telling Entertainment Voice. “I had written it back when I was still young enough to play Jack. The Jack role was for me to play. We didn’t get it off the ground and then I forgot about it. Then I got very busy as an actor. Many years went by and then, I made a short film for fun and really loved that experience. At the end of that, the guy who produced it, Sam Tipper-Hale, said ‘well, what else have you got? Let’s make a feature.’ So I dug this script out. It didn’t quite work, the third act needed work. So we developed it for a while. But by then I was too old to play Jack, and I really wanted to direct.”
Small, intimate, but with large emotions, D’Arcy’s film is carried by its performances. “Enter Liam Neeson. I sent the script to him. I didn’t even hold my breath because I didn’t know him. It was a blind submission to his agent,” said D’Arcy. “You could have knocked me over with a feather because suddenly there was this email in my inbox from Liam, saying how much it had touched him, it made him laugh. It made him cry. So we met. We had a mega 2-hour, 3-hour cup of tea. We talked about how there were parallels with his own life, which was completely by chance. Then he said, ‘look, I want to do the movie and this may not work out, but would you consider meeting my son to play the role of my son? I just think we might able to bring something extra to it.” By casting Neeson and Richardson, there is an acute mood between the two characters on screen. “I did meet Micheál, and happily so. Liam insisted we do a proper audition, which we did. Micheál was so funny, charming and moving. We did one of the emotional scenes, dimmed the curtains, and I looked into the camera and realized, ‘my god, he’s like a young Liam Neeson in this scene.’ But I had to be careful, because there was a risk that I could re-traumatize him in the process of making the film. So I wanted to make sure that I could protect him, while still asking him to go to some emotional places. Obviously, in his life, he’s had a really tough childhood. I lost my father when I was six. So he and I had kind of this invisible bond, at being a kid who lost his parent early.” The trauma D’Arcy is referring to, when directing Richardson, is the death of Neeson’s wife, Natasha Richardson, who died after a skiing accident in 2004. As in real life, father and son in this film are united by the loss of the other link in their family, and it is a pain neither has truly discussed.
“Made In Italy” on the surface looks like another one of those feel-good titles like “A Good Year,” where characters escape to idyllic landscapes to reconnect with life. But as it develops, it becomes a film about processing painful memories, and how a distant, painful event casts a shadow over new scars like divorce. D’Arcy has already been directed by a slew of notables. His credits include roles in films like the Wachowskis’ highly underrated “Cloud Atlas,” Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk,” “Avengers: Endgame,” and even Madonna’s “W.E.,” a film both derided while inspiring intrigue. “Made In Italy” proves he has learned well, making a film both subtle and meaningful. “I can’t even believe it’s my life but I’ve worked with some extraordinary filmmakers. The Wachowskis, Peter Weir, Christopher Nolan, Madonna, who was actually an extraordinary director. The ones I’ve most responded to are the ones who have a real clear vision of what they want to do, but are willing to ‘dance’ on set, in Madonna’s case literally…that’s what I mainly try to imitate, to feel like you can be free to make decisions. And we did, we made some last minute decisions like, ‘can we really get away with this?’” D’Arcy has taken two particular tips from Christopher Nolan. “The first is, there are no chairs in Christopher Nolan’s sets, there’s nowhere to sit. It’s not a controversial thing to say, there are no chairs. You stood. But what it does is it makes the crew and the cast feel pretty nimble. You want to get moving. The second thing he does is there are no phones on set. No one has them, no one, not even his wife. Not even Emma ever brought a phone on set. That also is great because it focuses the crew. Quite often you can look over on the set and there’s six grips playing candy crush. I tried to steal those two ideas, and I felt they were very helpful.”
Romance blossoms in “Made In Italy,” but it feels sincere as opposed to rehashed. Kate (Lindsay Duncan), the agent selling the villa, will look at Robert a certain way, but it is so low key one could almost miss it. When Jack gets closer to Natalia, they feel like real adults. Jack feels cornered by his divorce, left with few desirable roads in life. He does not have his father’s talent, but comes to understand the personal scars driving Robert forward. “This was my first script, so it’s naïve, or innocent. It has an innocence about it. It might be in the film, actually. But what I didn’t do was write a ‘B plot,’ so I had nowhere to cut to, which is really dumb as a screenwriter. Denoting the passage of time becomes incredibly difficult when you have nowhere to cut to…There was a film that I watched, ‘Eighth Grade,’ which I saw sometime in pre-production. I watched it about four times. It’s a wonderful film, really amazing film. What I liked about it was the director didn’t impose himself on the film. They, like us, were a low-budget movie. What I liked was he chose a few moments to make some flourishes, but mainly he just let the actors do the acting.”
Into its final moments, “Made In Italy” crescendos into an almost cathartic emotional climax. It’s a small drama that has a warmth to it, and a capacity to feel joy and explore our contemplative, hurting selves. “We hoped we could gently and comedically take the audience by the hand and take them to a more emotional place. If you can laugh me into bed, great, that’s the way to get me. I’m emotionally vulnerable if you can make me laugh. So I deliberately tried to keep it light and upbeat and sort of fun, so when we got to the more emotional beat, the audience would feel it more deeply.”
“Made In Italy” releases Aug. 7 on VOD.