Central to My House in Umbria are two stalwarts (indeed, legends) of British stage and film: Dame Maggie Smith and Ronnie Barker (in the last film he made before he died). They are admirably supported by the noted English comedian Timothy Spall (who subsequently triumphed in the film Mr Turner), and iconic Italian actor Giancarlo Gianini.
The plot is simple enough: a group of strangers are travelling on a train in Italy, when a bomb in their carriage explodes, killing some and seriously wounding the others. The survivors end up convalescing at the Umbrian country home of Emma Delahunty (Smith), an English ex-pat with a checkered past who has made a living for herself writing romance novels. They include a retired English major (Barker), a young German political activist named Werner (Benno Furmann), and an American girl who retreats into silence as a result of being traumatised by the explosion (Emmy Clarke). All three are mourning the loss of loved ones in the bombing; while their hostess, who lives alone (with the exception of her manager and groundsman Quinty, played by Spall) mourns a life of dashed hopes and ill-fated romances.
Slowly, the strange group begin to re-awaken a sense of purpose and meaning in life, primarily through a project involving the re-creation of an English cottage garden in Delahunty’s sprawling, if ill-kept grounds. But their tranquility is threatened on two fronts: Inspector Giotto (Gianini) is determined to catch those responsible for the bombing, and makes frequent calls in which he asks uncomfortable questions; and the American girl’s stiff-necked uncle (Chris Cooper) has arrived to take custody of her, thereby breaking the bond of friendship the group has formed.
These plot threads play out in a simple story beautifully told through a combination of stunning cinematography and sympathetic performances. In particular, the scenes filmed around the small Umbrian hill-town near Delahunty’s villa, and those shot in and around Sienna, are just breathtaking. Smith is superb as always; Barker delivers a performance that reminds us he was a skilled character actor long before he achieved fame as a comedian; Spall is charming and ironic; Gianini is urbane and graceful.
Beyond the cinematography and the performances, however, what most strikes the viewer about this film are the themes of grace and redemption that run like dual threads through the plot. All the characters (with the exception of the little girl, whose flaws are a consequence of her trauma) are broken people in one degree or another, burdened by loss, despair, and regret. But they are able to find redemption in the most unlikely of places: in one another’s brokenness. The mutual encounter of their bruised and vulnerable humanity causes them to minister to one another; unconsciously at first, and then with a growing sense of warmth and intimacy as their shared sanctuary and desire to re-create the English cottage garden Delahunty longs for enables them to re-form the bonds of their common humanity. And with that humanity comes recognition of a shared need for human contact and engagement, irrespective of how many times that contact has hurt them in the past.
And herein lies their redemption: their capacity to find their way back to hope, to being able to see forward again; not in denial of the past, but without it being a burden for them, even as they carry that past into the future. Their redemption is their capacity to re-affirm themselves, and one another, in the face of everything that negates their affirmation. It is the very weakness and vulnerability of their humanity, as a shared experience, that enables them to become more than the sum of who they are.
My House in Umbria is a modest film, simply made. It won’t make anyone’s Top Ten list. But it is an eminently worthwhile film to see, both for its own simple beauty, and because of the moving and affirming portrait of vulnerable humanity which it paints.
(c) Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.