From the Vine aspires to be sweet and luxuriating, like an aged fine wine that will resonate under the skin and offer some hope, some fascinating insight, or the promise of what could be. But sadly, it falls extremely short.
From the Vine wants to be another La Dolce Vita (1960) but constantly ends up more like sweet vinegar than the full-bodied red with plenty of heft, depth and charm it teases that it could be. All the usual clichés are on display in abundance: long-suffering wife, mid-life crises, unfulfilled work and status, the bliss of leaving it all behind and starting fresh in your grandfather’s idyllic Villa in the hills of Italy surrounded by vineyards, olive groves and rustic ruined farmhouses. It’s all been done before, and far, far better (think a poor man’s Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)).
Given that From the Vine is based on a semi-autobiographical novel of the same name by Kenneth C. Cancellara, you would think that the characters would be more fleshed out and fully realised. Like the film’s protagonist Marco Gentile (Joe Pantoliano), Cancellara is a Canadian corporate lawyer born in Acerenza, the small town in Italy’s Southern Apennines, where the film is set.
Early on, Gentile abruptly walks out on his lucrative job with a large Canadian car company because his new bosses have rejected his ideas about making the firm’s practices more sustainable. It seems like a forced motivation rather than a natural thing for the character to do; it is essentially just a plot device to get the character to suddenly up and leave his life behind. Of course, the reasonable thing to do would be to tell his wife, Marina (Wendy Crewson), the bombshell news. Instead, he inexplicably buys two plane tickets to Italy and casually, over dinner, drops the news like he’s asking her to pass the salt. He wants her to drop everything, including her career, put her life on hold and go on this Italian adventure with him.
Naturally, she is shocked and thinks he has lost his mind and refuses to follow. So, he sets off alone to Acerenza. In this spectacularly picturesque hill town, his former school friends who haven’t seen him in forty years greet him with such unashamed exuberance that you keep waiting for the villagers to change overnight, and suddenly you’re in the middle of The Wicker Man (1973) or Hot Fuzz (2007). Sadly, that sort of spontaneity and originality is the furthest thing from the novel and the film’s narrative.
Of course, he strolls into town, takes over his late grandfather’s vineyard and recruits the townsfolk into working for him despite having no experience in winemaking. The arrogance of Marco, followed by his wife and daughter when they inevitably come to town, is shameless. All his family wants to do is rid him of this flight of fancy while soaking up all Italy has to offer. Every person in the village is a caricature rather than a character or person, even down to the rodent-like vagabond who squats in the vineyard shed, with his bulbous reddish nose, missing teeth and ‘loveable tramp’ demeanour.
Joe Pantoliano as Marco Gentile may seem an odd choice for the lead, but the long-time character actor delivers an unexpectedly poignant yet often misguided performance. Director Sean Cisterna adds some level of Fellini-esque surrealism that creates funny but strange tonal shifts in the narrative, especially when Marco is talking to his grapes or receiving communion at Sunday Mass. While Pantoliano gives a solid edginess to the film, most of the remaining cast seem rather wooden without much to do. Wendy Crewson feels miscast, and there’s no discernible chemistry between Pantoliano and Crewson. You almost want them to separate so they can be rid of each other.
There are some genuine scenes of enjoyment, but sadly these are few and far between. The narrative plays like scenes of dozens of small linked vignettes rather than a comprehensive narrative. Nothing fazes Marco as things glide by the numbers to a typical and wholly uneventful, obvious conclusion. From the Vine is like wine left out in the sun too long, rather than anything drinkable.
Wendy Crewson (Marina), Paula Brancati (Laura), and Frank Moore (Gordon Welsh) have all appeared in The Murdoch Mysteries, though not in the same episodes.