By Michael DeFranco
A Tasty Film Lacking Some Ingredients
Sometimes a film’s protagonist is not someone you root for, and although these types of characters can be hard to watch, they serve an important function in film. This is the case for the 2022 Danish romantic comedy Toscana directed by Mehdi Avaz. I chose this film at random from the “International” section on Netflix in hopes to find something different from the Hollywood blockbusters I have been watching of late, and I do not regret the decision.
The movie follows Theo, a fine-dining chef who strives for greatness but struggles to find satisfaction in life. After his negligent father dies and leaves Theo his Tuscan estate, an altercation forces Theo to reluctantly return to Tuscany so he can sell the property and realize his dream of opening a new revolutionary restaurant. Here, he reunites with Sophia, a childhood friend, and the two rekindle feelings for each other. Coincidentally, Sophia is marrying Theo’s friend in a few days. This unsurprisingly creates a complicated mess involving loaded conversations, a Vespa, lots of cheese, and ultimately a dinner service to determine the fate of the estate.
Toscana is fairly predictable, and although I could see where it was going, I went along for the ride. The appeal comes from its captivating setting and complicated characters. The stunning landscapes made me want to travel again, and I was tempted to book the next flight to Italy. As an Italian who loves to cook, my soul was touched seeing the rolling Tuscan hills, delicious fresh food, and quaint villa. The cinematography only added to these feelings, as everything was rich in color, purposefully composed, and flatteringly lit. I was especially drawn to the orderly framing and high-key look used in the fine-dining scenes to show this style of cooking’s elegance. There is a very similar scene in the hit show The Bear which I also watched recently and absolutely adored. Both the show and this film effectively contrast the beauty of food with the chaos of restaurant work. Thematically, food plays an integral part in bringing characters together, which is something I strongly believe in and have explored in my own film work.
Then there are the characters. Theo is a complex man who I despised at certain points but sympathized with at others. I couldn’t help but relate to his attention to detail, social awkwardness, and conflict between personal happiness and drive to achieve greater goals. Sophia was less well-rounded, and both protagonists made some decisions that were borderline unrealistic. This was a writing issue as opposed to an acting one; I think Anders Matthesen (Theo) and Cristiana Dell’Anna (Sophia) did excellent work in their roles.
Where the film really falls short is in its use of a relatively-short ninety-minute runtime. Production took place during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic in Toscana, Italy, where restrictions were far tighter than in the U.S. Furthermore, principal photography lasted only 19 days (most films take 1-3 months). These limitations certainly show at certain points in the film. The pacing was uneven, with some sections of the plot slowing down to a crawl and others leaving me with missing context. The transition from when Theo first meets Sophia to them as friends again was especially jarring because of how fast it happens. First, they meet and appear to be strangers, then Sophia realizes who Theo is, and in the next scene, they are sharing a glass of wine and philosophizing about life. The jump leads to a disconnect from the characters and their relationship which I was never fully able to recover from.
Another fault is the use of cliches. We see many scenes which have been filmed before like the main man wooing the girl on his motorbike or the drunk wedding speech from the jealous ex. I would say that the overuse of the score also falls into this category. There is hardly a scene in the entire film without music behind it. Granted, many films in the rom-com genre rely on similar techniques and cliches as the ones I have just listed, but these examples turned me off the story as I watched.
In the end, the film is nowhere near perfect but it is enjoyable for what it is: a charming low-budget romantic comedy. The film’s exploration of finding one’s place in the world is a theme we can all relate to. Though we never really root for the protagonist, I think most people will see a bit of themselves in him and this can really get you thinking about where you are in your own life.