TIFF Review: ‘Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle’ Tells a Charming Tale

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2017 TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: With a title like “Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle“, you’d be correct in assuming this comedy-drama from Mike van Diem is not a simple story. Indeed, this cross-cultural, decades-spanning yarn is at its heart, a showcase for the art of storytelling. Whether you are narrating or being told a story, it can be a joyous experience, as shown with this highly entertaining film.

The eventful “Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle” begins in the late 1980s, as a young woman named Anna (Ksenia Solo) travels from her home in Montreal to the village of Italy upon the dying wish of her late mother. Upon arriving there to scatter her ashes, however, her straightforward trip takes on greater significance. She is introduced to Immacolata and Vito, old friends of her mother’s who excitedly welcome the chance to reveal the true history of Anna’s family background.

In a tale that stretches back several decades, she learns about her father Gauke (Gijs Naber), a Dutch farmer who came to the village after a catastrophic flood in his hometown. With little more than a satchel of tulip bulbs and his bicycle in his possession, he ends up in Puglia. Through luck and determination, he becomes a successful tulip merchant, hoping to build a good life for the woman he planned to marry from home. Unfortunately, his can-do attitude clashes with the corrupt practices of the powerful local businessmen, leading to his sudden disappearance one day. As the narrative unfolds, the mystery behind his disappearance is revealed, through its connection to a murder investigation that potentially leads to Anna 30 years later.

Though the film is about the adventures of Gauke and his family, it is largely told from Immacolata’s perspective. Prone to amusing embellishments, her exuberant spirit, therefore, permeates throughout the story. Gauke himself is a buoyant character whose outlook and impact is reminiscent of Juliette Binoche’s Vianne in “Chocolat”. He immediately makes his presence felt, befriending the townspeople and engaging in endearing acts of cultural exchange. Indeed, some of the film’s most charming scenes include Gauke learning how to eat spaghetti correctly and his attempts at Italian jokes.

While Lidia Vitale and Gijs Naber keep things lively with their performances, the production itself has inherent appeal. Shot on location in Puglia, the bright cinematography gives the film an appealing storybook quality, especially with the colorful tulips. As they blossom overnight, they add a touch of magic to the film.

But although “Tulipani: Love, Honour and a Bicycle” charmingly celebrates the idyllic beauty of provincial Italian life, it does not shy away from the negative aspects. Namely, when the mafia-like businessmen intrude, the film takes a dark turn. To van Diem and co-writer Peter van Wijk’s credit, the script upends the predictable idealism of the first half, which makes the film even more intense and moving. Firmly committing to the change of tone, the film embraces a wicked sense of humor. And in one particularly dire scene, the color grading darkens from the previously warm hues.

Ultimately, the poignant final act will make you wish the earlier scenes were more daring in terms of style and theme. For example, there is even a subliminal message about the positive contribution of immigrants and the harmful consequences of intolerance. But even if the film won’t be mistaken for a masterpiece, the compelling screenplay about “love, honor and a bicycle” captures your attention and never lets go. As one character puts it, you could choose to dismiss it, but you’d miss out on a good story.

GRADE: (★★★)