Tony Grisoni, the acclaimed screenwriter behind Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the acclaimed Red Riding trilogy, made his move into direction with his 1999 short film Vanished! A Video Séance. The Pizza Miracle is his third, and most recent, short; and it is a delightfully melancholy and warming tale about the unspoken, and often unrequited, sacrifices that we make for the people we love.
As soon as the film opens – with a crackling, antique credit sequence – we are almost transported back to that beautiful Provencal world of De Sica and Visconti. I say almost, because Grisoni’s playfulness is somehow evident before a single image permeates the screen, and the audience were already giggling in a knowing way as soon as the first title ‘The Madonna of the Eels’ appeared on screen over a grainy, stark seaside landscape. This opening vignette – about a young fisherman who loses the ability to decapitate eels (a necessary skill for his livelihood) after being haunted by an image of the Madonna – is pitch perfect. It teeters on the brink between melodrama and farce, but it never quite falls into either camp, remaining fresh and enticing throughout.
We leave this unfortunate young man, screaming blue murder at the haunting deity, as we are whisked away to the ‘present day’ funeral of Gianni, “The King of Pizzas’. Any darkening of tone is swept away when a female mourner quietly assures the deceased that his ‘package’ was the biggest she had ever taken, and the thought of it still makes her wet. Eventually an awkward middle-aged man peers over the coffin, seemingly baffled by what lies within. This is the chef’s son, Daniel, and he clearly understands his father no better in death than he did in life.
We are never told whether Daniel decided to take over the family business out of necessity or good faith; but whatever the reason, we next see him struggling through a pizza order in a dusty, cluttered North London Trattoria. In the filthy kitchen, his dead father seems very much alive as he fills the room with foul cigarette smoke and pisses in the sink. To describe any more of this enticing story would be to risk ruining its freshness and energy, but suffice to say that father and son struggle to see eye to eye while working together in the stuffy cucina.
The viewer is very much a part of the story, largely thanks to cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister’s wonderfully natural use of space and light, but also due to Grisoni’s confident mastery of language and dialogue. Gianni and Daniel speak to us far more than they speak to each other (and I hope I am not alone in suggesting that we all ‘speak’ to ourselves far more than we speak to those closest to us) and in criticising each other they unwittingly reveal what is most deeply wrong with themselves. Gianni is stubborn and arrogant; exactly the sort of man we would all love to meet in a pub but would hate to have for a father. He has about as much respect for Daniel’s feelings as he does for culinary tradition (i.e. not a lot!) and he is relentlessly critical of his son’s timidity. Daniel, put simply, is exactly how you would expect this man’s son to turn out.
This film isn’t exactly a biting indictment of ‘the sins of the fathers’, but it certainly nibbles in that general direction. A father is an enormous part of any son’s world, so it is no surprise that a father that refuses to be understood and doesn’t know how to be loved can end up with a bewildered son who doesn’t know how to live. But this cavernous theme is sweetened and enriched by the squelch of Marinara sauce, the clink of wine glasses, and the rustling of aprons as two grown men – one dead, one barely living – find a way to understand where their shared past disappeared to.
There is a final twist in the story regarding Gianni’s youthful tussle with the Madonna of the eels. His desperate and foul-mouthed rant is not a hollow one; he means to take action to save his starving family. Will he sacrifice his own soul and commit murder in order to save his loved ones? Or will he follow the cowardly path of Abraham and sacrifice them? Well I’m not one to spoil an ending, but if you have learned anything about Gianni from this review, you might be able to work it out.