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The worst platitudes and clichés about Italy, the Netherlands, organized crime and passing gas are combined to supposedly crowd-pleasing effect in the mess of a movie that is Tulipani: Love, Honor and a Bicycle (Tulipani: Liefde, Eer en een Fiets). This gaudy, wannabe fairytale has the gall to paint a fair-haired Dutch immigrant escaping the catastrophic 1953 floods in the Lowlands as the Christ-like savior of a village in southern Italy that’s being controlled by the local mob. Even apart from the fact that organized crime was much more of an issue in 1950s Sicily than southeastern Apulia, where the story is set, the suggestion that all it takes to rid a very complex region of its deeply rooted problems is just one happy-go-lucky Dutch dude who rides into town on a bicycle is, of course, laughable — but not in the way this wannabe comedy intended. After winning a foreign-language film Oscar for his 1997 debut and straight-up masterpiece, Character, this is a tone-deaf disappointment from writer-director Mike van Diem.
The convoluted story, which jumps back and forth between different timelines between the 1950s and the 1980s and in Italy, the Netherlands and also — for no good reason — Montreal, was conceived by screenwriter Peter van Wijk. He originally wrote it for Marleen Gorris, who won the foreign-language film Oscar just two years before van Diem for Antonia’s Line. Since her award-winner is also a mosaic and multi-generational story set in the recent past, it’s not hard to imagine what kind of film Gorris, who dropped out over health issues, would have made out of this story, as Antonia’s Line combined welcome flights of fancy and touches of surrealism with a very salty, down-to-earth quality that suggested life is a combination of highs and lows, of pleasure and pain.
What Van Diem, who now shares a co-writing credit, has come up with is more of a Disney version of a colorful but harmless fairytale, except it also contains a lot of fart jokes and is obsessed with the idea that a Dutch messiah in southern Italy is somehow inherently funny as well as the only thing that can uproot the evil that is Italian organized crime. And, of course, there’s lots of no-questions-asked, love-at-first-sight romance, because who wouldn’t fall in love in picture-postcard Italy?
The story in a nutshell: Broad-shouldered Dutchman Gauke (Gijs Naber) left the Netherlands on a bicycle after the 1953 floods and ended up in Apulia, in and near the heel of Italy’s boot. He settles in a trullo-type stone ruin he buys from the local metalsmith, Piero (Giorgio Pasotti), and starts to cultivate tulips, though his flourishing business is soon eyed by the local crime boss, Lo Bianco (Toto Onnis), who wants a percentage for “protection.”
Gauke’s rather incredible life story is recounted by his grown daughter, Anna (Ksenia Solo), who lives in Canada but has come home to her father’s adopted Italian village after the death of her step-mother, who turns out to be Piero’s widow (Donatella Finocchiaro). Together with Immacolata (Lidia Vitale), who runs the village’s bar and whose strapping son, Vito (Michele Venitucci), Anna likes to hang out with, she tells the local police inspector (veteran Giancarlo Giannini) Gauke’s life story because Anna, who is in the hospital because of an unfortunate accident to her behind, is a murder suspect. Oh, and Gauke’s wife (Anneke Sluiters) is someone he slept with once without knowing her name, back in the Netherlands, and who then schleps all her stuff all across 1950s Europe to set up a new life with the stranger because she’s pregnant. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t specify what kind of bike she came in on.
Editor Jessica de Koning ensures that the tangle of different storylines is always fully comprehensible, but what is less clear is why this relatively straightforward story needs to be told in a needlessly complicated fashion. The only excuse the film offers is that good stories are entertaining in their own right, whether they are embellished or not, but Tulipani would never qualify as a good story in the first place, reliant as it is on stereotypes and low-brow humor that feel like they have been teleported in directly from the ‘50s.
The most offensive part of the story is the idea that an entire Italian village suffering from the local mob’s dominance just needs one blond foreigner to solve the problem. Only exacerbating this kind of blatant north-versus-south racism is the fact that Gauke keeps getting painted as a Christ-like person from the moment he walks into the village with a wooden “For Sale” sign that looks like a gigantic crucifix. Subtle this movie certainly ain’t.
Van Diem is also entirely tone deaf when it comes to his portrayal of Apulia, with none of the main actors from there and none of them making an effort to sound even vaguely Apulian, with everyone speaking in a generically polished Italian that would be hard to find in Apulia now, much less in 1953, when people didn’t have access to TV and the internet. The only partial exception is little Gianni Pezzolla, a local scene-stealer who plays Vito as a child and who occasionally will let a little of his Apulian accent slip in.
Fairytales don’t need to necessarily to be realistic, but why then suggest the film is set specifically in 1953 Apulia when all we get are people speaking generic Italian living in a generically pretty parish where the locals are always drinking coffee (in the morning) or wine (any other time of the day) and where the only problem seems to be a precocious form of the Sacra Corona Unita crime syndicate (actually founded in 1981)? It all just feels like a waste of fine talent in front of and behind the camera, and then we haven’t even mentioned the amount of fart jokes braided into the very heart of the material, an odd choice given that most fairytale-like comedies and romances have survived for centuries without them. Come to think of it, I guess that means the locals really have two problems to talk about over their drinks of choice: organized crime and breaking wind. At least, until some Germanic Messiah comes to clean up the mess.
Production companies: Fatt Productions, Don Carmody Television, Draka Productions, Stemo Production
Cast: Ksenia Solo, Gijs Naber, Giancarlo Giannini, Anneke Sluiters, Lidia Vitale, Donatella Finocchiaro, Giorgio Pasotti, Michele Venitucci, Gianni Pezzolla
Director: Mike Van Diem
Screenwriters: Peter van Wijk, Mike van Diem
Producers: Hans de Weers, Elwin Looijen Corrado Azzollini, Claudio Bucci, Don Carmody, David Cormican
Director of photography: Luc Brefeld
Production designer: Harry Ammerlaan
Costume designers: Ornella Campanale, Marina Campanale
Editor: Jessica de Koning
Music: Ari Posner, Jim McGrath
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
Sales: Atlas International
In Italian, English, Dutch
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