Brian Cox rages robustly and arrestingly against the dying of the light in “The Etruscan Smile,” an unabashedly formulaic yet undeniably affecting coming-to-terms drama that may cause as much discomfort as delight for those who recognize bits and pieces of their own fathers (or themselves) in the cantankerous character Cox portrays so persuasively.
Based on the novel “La Sonrisa Etrusca” by José Luis Sampedro, with the original narrative transported from Milan to Scotland and San Francisco by co-writers Michael McGowan, Michael Lali Kagan and Sarah Bellwood, the film focuses primarily on Rory MacNeil (Cox), an irascible septuagenarian who initially seems content to spend his twilight years on the remote Hebrides Island where his family has lived for generations. Trouble is, he fears that, given his noticeably declining health, he may not have many years left. And he’ll be damned if he’s going to die before Campbell (Clive Russell), the last remaining member of a family long at loggerheads with the MacNeils, finally succumbs to cirrhosis.
Partly to make sure he gets the last laugh, and partly to visit Ian (JJ Feild), his estranged son, and Emily (Thora Birch), Ian’s wife, Rory flies to San Francisco. You can’t help thinking that, under different circumstances, a family reunion would be low on Rory’s list of priorities. But the circumstances are what they are. And besides, Ian and Emily just happen to be friendly with a very good doctor (Tim Matheson) whom Rory casually name-drops shortly after his arrival.
It’s hardly a spoiler to report that Rory gets some extremely bad news after a battery of medical exams. Despite the cancer diagnosis, however, Rory is in no great rush to settle unfinished business with Ian, who left Scotland years earlier to accept a college scholarship and, not incidentally, avoid the burden of maintaining a family feud. When push comes to shove, Rory admits he views Ian as somehow less than a real man. And he sees even more reason to offer such a pitiless appraisal when he notices how Frank (Treat Williams), Emily’s wealthy father, is control-freakishly reshaping Ian’s plans to graduate from sous chef to restaurateur.
And yet, Rory appears nothing short of enchanted as he plays, cuddles and otherwise interacts with his infant grandson Jamie. And after a couple of meet-cute encounters with Claudia (well-cast Rosanna Arquette), a years-younger museum curator, the prickly Scotsman reveals, if not exactly a sensitive side, then a willingness to be charming and courtly. Not unlike Jamie, Claudia truly enjoys spending time with Rory. That is, until she learns he is running out of time.
“The Etruscan Smile” sporadically recalls several earlier movies about mending fences and taking chances before the final curtain falls. (“Travelling North,” the 1987 Australian drama directed by Carl Schultz and starring Leo McKern, is just one of the obvious predecessors.) And it’s a bit too on the nose when it comes to finding symbolism in the artwork at Claudia’s museum. The film’s title, like that of the novel before it, refers to the expressions on terra cotta statues that indicate the possibility of a happy death.
Meanwhile, co-directors Mihal Brezis and Oded Binnun, working in concert with their screenwriters, cagily avoid the obvious in other areas. Rory may be the classic fish out of water, with his blunt-spoken garrulousness and proudly Scottish eccentricities (at one point, he actually wears a kilt to a formal gala) that make him an odd man out in polite San Francisco settings. But the movie never pushes too far into farce, and stops well short of “Coming to America” or “Crocodile Dundee” extremes.
The face-offs between Rory and Ian often are purposefully unsettling in their raw emotion, with each man appearing determined to re-open old wounds. (It’s no small credit to his talent that, even when Ian backs down, Feild adamantly refuses to be blown off the screen by Cox.) But, again, the filmmakers evince restraint: They refuse to tell us everything about the troubled past shared by father and son, thereby enhancing the story’s universality.
This could just as easily be a narrative about, say, a young Irishmen who left Dublin and fled to America to disengage from his family’s IRA connections. Or, at the other extreme, it could be about a farmer’s son who moved to the city simply because he felt he wasn’t cut out to make a living off the land. Either way, it would still be a story about a father who’s never gotten over his son’s refusal to be for him what he was for his own dad. And about that father’s unrelenting efforts to bring his son — or, failing that, his grandson — back home.
Cox, a brilliantly versatile actor whose lengthy résumé includes everything from the original Hannibal Lecter in “Manhunter” to the soft-hearted hardcase of a bar owner in “The Good Heart,” has recently become something of a household name thanks to his mesmerizing portrayal of aging but unbowed media mogul Logan Roy on HBO’s “Succession.” The elevation of his profile due to that show is likely the main reason why “The Etruscan Smile” has finally gotten a U.S. release after a lengthy period of festival-hopping and overseas exhibition. (The movie bears a 2017 copyright.)
Because of the New Normal dictated by COVID-19, however, the release will be a hybrid of theatrical and VOD. Starting this weekend, and continuing through May 31, audiences can purchase $12 “virtual tickets” to view “The Etruscan Smile” at home, with 50% of the proceeds going to brick-and-mortar theaters participating in the program.