Set in a small Italian village that hasn’t changed much in perhaps 1,500 years, yarn spins on the frantic attempt of local restaurant owner Marcello (Reno) to secure a place for his dying wife, Roseanna (Ruehl), in a church cemetery next to their late daughter. This is a problem because only three plots remain and it is very unclear when Roseanna might expire, meaning that she could easily be beaten to the punch by other villagers for the unreservable spaces.
Plenty of low comedy is devoted to Marcello’s frantic efforts to keep ailing hospital patients alive in order to prevent the plots from filling up. But his best hope lies in convincing Capestro (Luigi Diberti), a bitter old man, to sell some of his land to the church so it can expand the cemetery. Harboring some grudge, however, Capestro refuses to consider it.
While doing all this, Marcello manages to keep his trattoria going with the help of his wife’s beautiful Roman sister, Cecilia (Polly Walker), whom Roseanna urges her husband to marry after her own demise. In the meantime, Cecilia is pursued by a handsome lawyer (the late Mark Frankel), who just happens to represent Capestro.
Through it all are intercut scenes of a prisoner, Iaccoponi (Trevor Peacock), being released and heading back to the village, where he expects to recover a large stash of money he left with a local man. Needless to say, the bundle no longer exists, and the ensuing drama leaves two people dead, enough to ruin Marcello’s dream of fulfilling his wife’s final wish. But there are still a few surprises left in this paean to enduring romantic love, surprises that, though thoroughly unbelievable, are designed to send the intended audience out happy.
Mastroianni would have been the perfect actor for this Marcello two or three decades back, but Reno does quite well by him, displaying energy to burn, utterly credible love for his wife and adroit comic timing, all of which help lift the material to sporadically engaging levels. Ruehl warmly portrays an innately wise woman forced to deal with all the ramifications of her demise well ahead of time. Other perfs are genial, even if the accents don’t always mesh.
Lovely setting of the village of Sermoneta and burnished widescreen lensing by Henry Braham go a long way to lulling the viewer into an escapist frame of mind, and director Paul Weiland keeps things moving. But pic is based on a slight, contrived conceit, the potential of which is mildly diverting at best.