Mark Gentile (Joe Pantoliano) is an attorney and company executive experiencing a midlife crisis. He refuses to sacrifice his personal values for business interests and decides to quit his job and return to his birthplace — the sunlit plains and rustic architecture of Acerenza in southern Italy — without receiving approval from his wife, Marina (Wendy Crewson), and daughter, Laura (Paula Brancati). After reconnecting with childhood friends, moving into his late grandfather’s house, and having literal conversations with grapevines, Mark plans to reopen the vineyard on the property. Marina and Laura aren’t too enthused with Mark’s decisions, but there’s no need to stress.
There’s definitely a place for films that swap drama for cutesiness, especially in 2020, and by the end credits, I felt that elusive feeling of happiness for a little while. That’s commendable, but From the Vine doesn’t have much else on its mind.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with predictable films. Sometimes it’s nice to sit back, relax, and watch a comfortably familiar story unfold. Unless I’m planning to doze off, however, I also expect these films to have characters and dialogue that leaves a positive impression. From the Vine only half-heartedly succeeds in this regard, providing a couple additions to the formula — principally among them the beautiful scenery — that just barely holds my attention through the 97-minute runtime.
Pantoliano gives an endearing-enough performance as Mark, a businessman with a heart of gold who stays true to himself despite social and financial pressures. Mark is a tad unhinged – implied by the aforementioned grapevine discussions and visions he has throughout the film — but Pantoliano’s acting chops can’t save him from becoming a rather generic protagonist. I could foresee his development from a mile off, and the film glosses over the nitty gritty of his personality to progress to the next schmaltzy story beat.
Every character is saddled with dialogue as subtle as a sledgehammer, and the film practically spells out what Mark is thinking and how his time in Acerenza changes him. Spoiler alert: Mark realizes the importance of staying true to himself and appreciating his cultural roots.
There was potential to explore the class and culture differences between him and the considerably less well-off residents of Acerenza, many of whom he hires to work at the vineyard, but the film sidelines commentary in favor of sugary warmth. From the Vine is ultimately a pseudo fairy-tale, after all, so viewers aren’t meant to dig deeper.
Marina and Laura are the film’s weakest characters, lacking any memorable traits and coming across as more irritating than anything else. They’re only present to pad out the runtime and give the film a pinch of stakes to be later overlooked.
Fortunately, the Acerenzian residents that Mark encounters are considerably more entertaining, but quite over-the-top. Noteworthy side-characters include Luca (Marco Leonardi), an exuberant, vaguely creepy policeman and Enzo (Tony Nappo), a bonkers drunkard squatting in a shack next to the vineyard. Although none of them ascend beyond mere caricature, they provide enough comic relief to give the film some much-needed identity.
The town of Acerenza is more engaging than any of the characters, and is indeed a character in and of itself. Cinematographer Scott McClellan captures Acerenza with a vivid, atmospheric eye, providing a tactile backdrop to the proceedings that ensures the film remains aesthetically pleasing if not intellectually compelling.
Looking back, I don’t regret watching From the Vine, and I appreciate films that aren’t soul crushingly depressing from time to time. There’s no doubt, though, that this story definitely had room to grow.
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From the Vine provides exactly what you expect and little else — light entertainment for an oppressively dark time.
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