The generous take on the broad whimsy of Mike van Diem’s “Tulipani: Love, Honor and a Bicycle” is that the director is playing with national iconography, bringing the floral majesty of the Netherlands into a storybook Italian village where only fedora-donning gangsters stand in the way of communal bliss. Yet Van Diem, who collected a foreign language film Oscar for “Character” in 1998, has constructed this movie as a Matryoshka doll of sickly sweet clichés, with nested stories that burst forth with familiar tropes about romance, revenge and family entanglements, and feature a touristy feel for the Apulian locale. The primary color palette and a light, crowd-pleasing tone wins “Tulipani” some initial good will, but as the story lurches from random wackiness to dark melodrama, Van Diem quickly loses his grip. It seems unlikely tulip fever will spread far beyond the festival circuit.
As a divertissement, “Tulipani” does have its appeals, especially in the early going, when it merrily hops around from the 1950s to the 1980s, and from snowy Montreal to the Mediterranean climes of Puglia, Italy, a village on the heel of the Italian boot. Van Diem and his co-screenwriter, Peter van Wijk, have packaged the story as Almodóvar lite, an elegant tangle of plot threads that combine in part to celebrate the possibilities of storytelling itself, as well as flash their own dexterity in pulling it off. But such narrative soufflés have to be managed delicately to maintain their lightness, and this one collapses under the weight of silly conceits and tonal instability.
In 1980 Montreal, the brilliant yellows and purples of tulip arrangements are the only colors breaking the sea of snowy white outside and the sterile interiors of a hospital, where Anna (Ksenia Solo) is attending to her mother on her death bed. Mom’s last request is for Anna to return her ashes to her hometown in Italy, surely knowing that her daughter will learn some important things about herself in the process. Not long after meeting her mother’s old friend Immacolata (Lidia Vitale) and her handsome, son, Vito (Michele Venitucci), the three are questioned by a local police inspector (Giancarlo Giannini, a Lina Wertmüller favorite), who pulls up a chair and listens to why Anna’s cigarette lighter was found at a crime scene.
From there, the film flashes back to the ’50s, when a major flood drove Anna’s father, Gauke (Gijs Naber), from Holland to Italy by bike, a more than 2,000-kilometer distance he covered in a mere five days. The tall tales continue from there — like how he arrived in Puglia like Christ the redeemer, with beard and cross in tow, and how he and his beautiful wife, Ria (Anneke Sluiters), planted tulips on their farm and watched them bloom the very next morning. Though beloved by the townspeople, Gauke runs into a conflict with local racketeers, who want their piece of his thriving flower business, but in one of the film’s dopiest sequences, he knocks them all out with kung fu. The bad guys don’t give up so easily, however, responding with an act of revenge that takes the story to a much darker place.
Van Diem and Van Wijk set up a tricky balancing act in a story that has to be calibrated with the precision of a Swiss watch yet somehow feel spontaneous and zany. They largely succeed in orchestrating the plot, which accommodates multiple timelines, a dual funeral and a host of revelations about Anna’s family roots. But “Tulipani” soon grows tiresome in its particulars, from the deification of Gauke as the swarthy, self-sacrificing avatar of hard work and romantic potency to lowbrow touches like his martial arts display and an epic, world-changing fart in the town square.
At the end of this 90-minute piffle, there comes the sour realization that Van Diem has offered no nourishment beyond the empty calories of his presumed virtuosity and charm. There’s nothing specific to ’50s Alpulia that couldn’t be gleaned from tourist guides and paperback fantasies, and there’s no authentic emotion in Anna’s journey of self-discovery. “Tulipani” is a bright flower that’s been yanked away from the soil; as a result, it’s doomed to wilt and rot.