' ' Cinema Romantico: Christmas in Rome

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Christmas in Rome

“Christmas in Rome” (2019) received fanfare in quarters where people concern themselves with made-for-TV movies and their typical minor-league production values for being shot – partly – on location in Rome, not simply saying it’s Rome and then placing the characters in bakeries with murals of The Colosseum, though that happens in “Christmas in Rome” too. And so, part of the charm of director Ernie Barbarash’s film is simply getting to see Rome; now they’re standing in front of The Colosseum, now they’re standing in front of Trevi Fountain. But you can’t make a movie just out of scenery, not in the narrative-driven world of Hallmark, and so “Christmas in Rome” is ostensibly about connecting these places to the city’s pace and spirit and air, which it does with varying success. The Italian dinners are weirdly frugal rather than lavish, only ever showing dessert as if the budget was all spent on locations and couldn’t even spring for a freaking plate of Cacio e pepe. Barbarash is more successful, however, in enlisting wise old pro Franco Nero for a supporting role, lending the kind of gravity these movies do not really deserve, a la Steven Weber in “Return to Christmas Creek” (2018) whose eyes seemed to suggest Christmas nostalgia was just another term for clinical depression. And Nero, bless his soul, embodies the air of an Eternal City as much as any cinematographic postcard op.

Business defines “Christmas in Rome” as much as Christmas, emblemized in the scene where we first meet Oliver Martin (Sam Page), who will be dispatched from an American corporation to try and buy the Christmas ornament company of Luigi Forlinghetti (Nero) as Barbarash cuts from the twirling pen in the hand of Oliver’s colleague to the Christmas mug Oliver holds in his own hand. This might seem to suggest that business and the holidays – and by extension, pleasure – don’t mix. Indeed, upon his arrival in Rome, Oliver spends his ride from the airport ignoring the sites flying by his window, burying his head in his laptop, and later, upon learning The Colosseum was built in just 10 years notes the impressive productivity, a line that sounds like a stretch unless you have experienced people who truly believe corporate jargon is a romance language. But when Oliver encounters Lacey Chabert’s Angela, things gradually begin to change, and not just because Luigi explains that he will only sell his company to someone who embraces the spirit of Rome.

Of course, the very conventions of Hallmark Christmas movies is antithetical to Dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing, never mind la gioia de bere uno spritz Campari. Structurally, these movies must hit certain dramatic beats every fifteen minutes or so to keep viewers tuned in through commercial breaks. And though I know it’s utterly absurd to think one of these assembly line movies could ever ditch its narrative midstream and espouse nothing but vibes, well, as previously established, “Christmas in Rome” was (partly) made in Rome and When in Rome, dammit...WHEN.IN.ROME. [Heavy sigh.] For what it’s worth, though, Chabert works great in this role because her energy is more relaxed, not the frenzied, drunk on Holiday Muzak air of so many Hallmark leading ladies, and Page does a decent job of letting you see that company man shell crack. Really, though, it’s Nero who brings the whole movie home. Playing a character immune to Oliver’s corporate commandments, Nero evokes a solemnity, not a stuffiness, rendering Luigi’s devotion to arts and leisure as almost religious. 

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