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Photo: ‘Love & Gelato’
To Rome with Love (and Gelato)
A lot of us have been at that point in our lives, where we’re done with high school and now we’re applying for colleges — hopefully with scholarships. You realize that you’re about to enter a completely new phase in your life and the people you hang out with in high school (probably the same people you’ve been hanging out with since the first grade) will probably play absolutely no part in this new phase. Expectations are different. You may have to help pay your way through college, which means getting a part-time job. You’ll probably regret the time you spent with that one guy you dated during senior year, then proceed to forget about him. Lina, the heroine of ‘Love & Gelato’, is at that point in her life, which given my own position, should make her perfectly relatable to me; I found her to be a good few steps short of relatable, though.
The film starts with a soap opera premise and never lets go of it. Lina is a high school graduate whose mother dies from illness at the beginning, and she has no clue who her father is; she seems pretty well-adjusted, both with the fact that her mother has died and the fact that she’s never met her biological father. Without skipping a beat, Lina takes the old diary her late mother gave her and — flies out to Italy, which I hear is a crucial part of the grieving process. Along the way, she finds love with a cute Italian boy and comes to terms with her mother’s past as well as the man who may or may not be her father. You’ve seen this kind of movie before. I knew basically nothing about ‘Love & Gelato’ going into it, and while I’m not exactly keen on romantic comedies, I do think it’s possible to make one that doesn’t totally demean its audience; unfortunately, I’m not sure if any such movie has come out in the past few years. You may think I’m unfair, but I’m more than willing to make my case, which is that not only is ‘Love & Gelado’ super-generic for a movie of its type, but it might be a little worse than that.
While Netflix continues to cling to original content that people are already attached to (‘Stranger Things’ and its new season, for one), it also continues to use its original content label as a dumping ground for movies and shows that nobody else wants. While HBO Max has been more or less the reigning champion of the streaming world for the past couple of years, Netflix’s crown has not only slipped but practically turned to dust. ‘Love & Gelato’ is based on Jenna Evans Welch’s 2016 novel of the same title, and while I haven’t read it, I’ve heard several reports that the book and its film adaptation have very little in common. I can believe it. Romance novels are a different can of worms, but rom-coms in Cinema have their own tropes and expectations that are like black holes, sucking in everything — even the source material.
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‘Love & Gelato’ – Teenagers Scare the Living Sh*t Out of Me
Perhaps not totally unbelievable for a teenager, Lina is completely disconnected from what we would consider normal human emotions. Susanna Skaggs’s performance could be defined as equal parts deliberately awkward and overly whimsical; her character swerves wildly between not knowing basic human interaction and being totally at ease as a young girl in a place she’s never been to before. Lina has three hobbies: photography, eating too many sweets, and reading her mom’s diary. As a man, I can’t help but find it strange and even disconcerting that I’ve seen several plot lines in movies and shows where the heroine feels somehow compelled to read her mother’s (sometimes grandmother’s) private writings as if that’s something you normally do for fun. On top of this, it doesn’t take long for Lina to catch a love interest, namely Lorenzo (played ably by Tobia De Angelis), who runs a bakery and who’s as cute as a button. A recurring problem I have with romance plots is that the two parties always seem to fall for each other because they’re both conventionally attractive, and they don’t completely annoy each other; ‘Love & Gelato’ doesn’t deviate from this line.
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Now, let’s talk about sweets. The “gelato” half of ‘Love & Gelato’ plays as great a part of it as the romance, even if I’m not sure what the meaning behind it could possibly be. Lina discovers a secret backdoor pastry shop, and Lorenzo’s family has a secret ingredient for its gelato that, much like the Krabby Patty, is a magical element that explains its success. Nothing overtly supernatural happens in the film, but Lina’s love of sugary things may as well have a bewitching effect on her, as the more she falls in love with the local cuisine, the more she falls in love with Italy. Indeed, we get scenery of Rome, Tuscany, and Florence, but we don’t get much of an impression as to what these cities are like; there are surprisingly few wide shots that could show off the locales, and the cinematography, in general, does little to make a good impression. Outside of Lina’s niche interests, we find out very little about what living in Italy as an expat would be like, which is why I would argue that, even given the other “genre” this movie belongs to, it doesn’t work well.
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The Problem with the “Tourist” Movie
The film was written and directed by Brandon Camp, whose most notable previous credit is the 2009 rom-com ‘Love Happens’, and even just reading the log lines, that film and ‘Love & Gelato’ are eerily similar. Indeed, two of Camp’s films along with the 2010 movie ‘Eat Pray Love’ are part of a genre I like to call the “tourist” movie; the “tourist” movie is basically where the protagonist travels abroad and seeks “spiritual fulfillment” as a kind of self-help ritual, often but not always involving romance. The protagonist is, pretty much without fail, white — and usually American. They see the world as their oyster and believe they can travel anywhere without feeling indebted to foreign cultures and peoples. This may sound hyperbolic, but I think this is the sort of thing Joseph Conrad warned us about in Heart of Darkness, that novella’s ultimate thesis being that the white man (i.e., the colonizer) cannot and should not treat the world like it’s his sandbox. ‘Love & Gelato’ is the kind of movie for people who think soft colonialism (like setting up a parasitic trade relationship with a former colony) is totally fine.
In a way, ‘Love & Gelato’ feels like a throwback. The similar movies I mentioned previously both came out more than a decade ago, and one would think that the self-help rom-com (perhaps the most insidious subspecies of rom-com) had died out during the Obama years, yet clearly, we are not done yet. Much like Netflix, whose content philosophy is increasingly falling behind the times, this is a movie that feels like it’s from a prior era — and not in a good way.
‘Love & Gelato’ is available to stream on Netflix.
CAST: Susanna Skaggs, Owen McDonnell, Tobia De Angelis, Valentina Lodovini
CREW: Director: Brandom Camp, Writer: Brandon Camp, Producers: Davide Bertoni, Brandon Camp, Gennaro Formisano, Viola Prestieri, Editor: Jacquelyn Le
By Brian Collins
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