An audience charmer at festivals around the world, Tulipani (Italian for tulips) is a shaggy-dog story that rewards those who hang onto its twisty narrative. Not that it’s hard to pay attention, give the winsome characters and breezy plot.
The story opens in 1980 Montreal. Anna (Ksenia Solo) is visiting her mother in hospital, and the dying woman asks that her ashes be taken home to Italy. Filially faithful, Anna does just that, and so the story moves to a sunlit Puglia, on the heel of Italy’s boot. Though she’s just arrived, the daughter has somehow been injured in an explosion and also accused of murder.
And then from her hospital gurney the story switches tracks again, this time to 1953 Holland and the story of how Anna came to be. Gauke (Gijs Naber, six-foot-two and seemingly made of oak) has just lost everything but his father’s bicycle in a devastating flood.
When Gauke meets Ria (Anneke Sluiters) he immediately falls in love, and for some reason decides to cycle to Italy to find a place to make a safe home for them both. He collapses from exhaustion in what he thinks is the town of “Vendesi” – in fact, it’s a for-sale sign, so he buys a little farm and starts preparing for his future wife to arrive. When she does, baby Anna is in her arms.
There’s a whimsical, almost Amélie-esque quality to this story from Dutch writer Peter van Wijk and writer/director Miek van Diem. We keep cutting back to the disbelieving police inspector who is patiently listening to Anna’s life story in the hospital hallway. (At one point he interrupts her to pull up a chair and make himself more comfortable.)
Gauke learns Italian as quickly as only a European can, and becomes a fixture in the small community, friend to the man who sold him the farm, and nemesis to the local Mafioso (Toto Onnis), who’s been shaking down the townsfolk with impunity until this giant Dutchman and his unexpectedly aggressive wife decide to stand up to him.
Tulipani carries the subtitle Love, Honour and a Bicycle, and delivers on all three counts. If you need more reasons to see it, I could add magic realism, humour and language lessons, not to mention a hilarious scene involving price negotiations and a piece of chalk. I’d love to say how that one ends, but it’s better if you check it out yourself.
Tulipani opens Sept. 7 in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Vancouver.