Road to the Lemon Grove is a pleasant enough diversion. A Canadian independent film with a distinct flair of Hamilton (as seen by the main character walking through Stelco at night), it is a zippy experience. It gleefully and sometimes haphazardly tonally gearshifts from screwball manic to philosophical ruminations on immigration and disappearing languages, cultural travelogue, ghost buddy supernatural comedy, romance, fake mafia antics, family drama, and a lot more. Road to the Lemon Grove throws a lot at the wall and most of it, sort of, sticks.
Calogero (Charly Chiarelli) is frustrated having to deal with his overbearing father, Antonio (Also Chiarelli), mostly because even in death his dad is still irritating him. Appearing as a spectre, Antonio tells his son he must take his ashes to his family’s miracle bestowing lemon grove in Sicily. This enrages Calogero’s extended family who think he wants to take the grove for himself, so taskmaster Zio Vincenzo (Burt Young) sends Guido (Nick Mancuso) after Calogero. In Sicily, Calogero becomes smitten with a feisty actress, Maria (Rossella Brescia). But with more crazy extended family, including a mysterious woman (Chiarelli, again), the ghost of his father being mouthy and Guido bumbling, Calogero may lose the grove.
This is definitely a lower budget affair. Sometimes the seams show but mostly it looks rather good. Antonio standing at the pearly gates is basically just a shadow outline at an airport hangar door which is rather striking visually, although the movie continually cuts back to the same shot quite a lot which dilutes the impact. There is some fun back and forth between Antonio and the Voice of God (Loreena McKennitt) who is also frustrated at Antonio’s constant nagging. Calogero lamenting he wants a sign his father is gone is framed nicely from above with him pleading at the heavens saying the dad lying in the coffin is “a pretty good sign!” Lemon Grove has a madcap pace that breezes over anything particularly clunky. Calogero suddenly and quite literally fighting with his Ghost Dad is a bit of a head scratcher but it’s cheerfully zany. There is a lot about Italian culture which sort of dips into clichés but usually it’s offset by random hollering that gets a laugh.
There is a lot of hollering in this movie, most if it supplied by Chiarelli who plays multiple roles to the hilt. There are a lot of scenes of Calogero and Antonio talking to each other and a fine makeup job makes Antonio look different and Chiarelli gives each character a distinctive spin. There’re a few shots of Calogero and Antonio in the same frame, one bit of them in a car with the Ghost Dad nattering at him is pretty fun, but most of the time it’s just shot back and forth between the two characters. The question if the Ghost Dad is real or just Calogero going nuts sways depending on the scene. Calogero is sometimes a serious professor type but there’s also a moment where he freaks out on his Ghost Dad while teaching a class. It makes less sense that Calogero is also playing the mysterious Sicilian woman although they do get a standoff scene that is framed like a Western shoot out to zany effect.
Probably the best stuff are flashbacks to Antonio and Young Calogero (Thomaso Sanelli) as the kid explains things to his dad. The kid has a wise beyond his years aspect as he has fun with messing up translations. In a funny yet kind of heartbreaking scene, Antonio goes off on a welfare agent about the squalor he and his son live in. The movie tries for a few emotional bits and while some are just fine, this one really works.
Although he isn’t the star, Burt Young is first billed in the opening credits yet his role is limited to a few scenes. Probably because he was in Rocky he’s the biggest name in the film. But for his few scenes where he barks orders and cries, he is amusingly gruff. As the love interest, Brescia gets a fun, if somewhat unoriginal, scene where she waves a meat cleaver at Calogero and demands to know why he keeps following her around. There is some odd stuff in the finale as she is impersonating a government official inspecting the lemon grove which kind of drains it of any tension as we know she is on Calogero’s side. Then there’s the weird climatic scene about her eating pasta in slow motion that is supposed to symbolize what side she is going to choose or whatever, it is never quite clear. Mancuso’s Guido falls backwards into the role of heavy as Guido is dim and not suited to being a baddie. Mancuso has some very amusing reactions and growling line deliveries, like when he growls the words “200 Cannoli” like it’s an ancient curse.
Road to the Lemon Grove keeps things lively throughout its running time even if the budget may sometime bang its head against the scope of its ambitions. There is a heck of a lot going on in the story as some threads feel underdeveloped and some scenes are awkward. But it’s an amicable and strange film that is likable as it tries to do everything at once. V
Road to the Lemon Grove
Director: Dale Hildebrand
Writers: Charly Chiarelli
and Dale Hildebrand
Starring: Burt Young, Rossella Brescia
and Nick Mancuso