Cinematic Releases: The Etruscan Smile (2018) - Reviewed

Legendary producer and multiple Academy Award winner Arthur Cohn, best known for Black and White in Color and One Day in September, after a six year hiatus from film production returns to the silver screen with the Brian Cox starring coming-to-terms drama The Etruscan Smile.  Based on the 1985 Spanish novel of the same name by José Luis Sampedro and adapted for the screen by Michael McGowan, Michal Lali Kagan and Sarah Bellwood, the film moves the location from Southern Italy to Scotland and Milan to San Francisco but outside of nationality the events remain more or less the same.

An aged Scottish farmer, Rory MacNeil (Brian Cox) estranged from his son Ian (JJ Field) and living in solitude on his Hebridean island is faced with the prospect of leaving his home to seek out medical treatment for his serious undiagnosed condition.  Relocating into San Francisco to live with his son and daughter-in-law Emily (Thora Birch), Rory finds himself at odds with the city way of life as well as his son increasingly irritated by his presence.  During his stay, however, Rory develops a special bond with his grandson he never came to know and is on track towards a path of redemption.  And he meets a nice art curator named Claudia (veteran actress Rosanna Arquette) along the way.

While we’ve seen this story done to death, the film’s scene beauty and Brian Cox’s central performance make it all worthwhile.  Co-directed by Oded Binnun and Mihal Brezis in their first feature together, the film is handsomely lensed in widescreen by Javier Aguirresarobe (Thor: Ragnarok), highlighting the elegant locations and open terrain playing as a stark contrast against the compartmentalized city life.  The Etruscan Smile also boasts a nice and lively score by Big Bad Wolves composer Haim Frank Ilfman, switching freely between Scottish pipes and modern city music echoing the sentiments of Thomas Newman.

Mostly though, The Etruscan Smile rests solely on the strength of actor Brian Cox who makes the grizzled elder rough around the edges but also, at heart, a gentle beast with a lot of love to give and stories to tell.  Some of the film’s best sequences involve Cox and a college professor played by E.T.’s Peter Coyote who takes special interest in Rory’s Gaelic language, getting into the heart of the character while illustrating his own value in the world.  While the film runs the risk of becoming schmaltzy saccharine at times, Cox makes the story work so well we don’t mind when we become aware of the familiar story arcs. 

A quiet, affecting and life affirming drama featuring a gifted actor at the top of his game, The Etruscan Smile is at heart a good and well-intentioned film that’s sure to warm even the coldest of hearts.  Yes the film is indeed sentimental and even cliched but Cox brings so much heart and soul to it we accept it all anyway.  While this doesn’t quite reach the apex set by some of producer Arthur Cohn’s previous productions, what’s here is a tender and even joyous film about what it means to still be able to find love even when you think you’ve lost your ability to love yourself.

--Andrew Kotwicki