Not long into this movie my wife turned to me and told me "Uncle Nino" reminded her of some of the Christian films I'm sent to review. I didn't have to ask what she meant. "Uncle Nino" (2003) has the same long set-up that you typically get in those movies where the case is slowly and deliberately built against neglectful husbands and fathers--the ones who put mammon ahead of God. The purpose, of course, is to firmly establish a drowning family that can be saved, still, by the power of prayer.
Only "Uncle Nino" is not a religious movie. It's a family film that embraces corny wholesomeness the way that Frank Capra used to do. But like those proselytizing efforts, this film, written and directed by Robert Shallcross ("Little Giants"), methodically moves from character to character in a family recently relocated to the Chicago suburb of Glenview for the explicit purpose of showing how dysfunctional and disconnected they all are as individuals and as a family unit. That's all counterbalanced by Uncle Nino, a sweet old Italian whose cheeks you want to pinch, he's so Old-World cute. We see him in his small village in Italy, where he appreciates life, he appreciates the earth and his garden, he appreciates music (he plays violin), he appreciates good wine (he makes his own), and . . . well, basically he's the poster child for the simple life. He's also the answer to this distant family's prayers, thought none were ever uttered.
Nino (Pierrino Mascarino) has never visited his brother in America, but he finally decides to make the leap across the Atlantic to see America, the land that gave him an apparent fetish for Abraham Lincoln (he event labels his house wine "Abraham Lincoln"). Never mind that his brother is no longer alive. He's going to visit his nephew and his family. But the letter he sent them notifying them of his arrival is mislaid, and when they finally realize that Uncle Nino has been knocking about O'Hare International Airport all by himself, it falls to the mother, Marie (Anne Archer), to pick him up. That's because the father, Robert Micelli (Joe Mantegna), is too busy with work. We don't know exactly what business he's in, but the drill is familiar: the hard-working guy trying to get a promotion who's benignly abused by his boss to the point where you know he's not ever going to get that promotion. He's just going to continue to be used by the company.
Robert doesn't have time for his wife and he doesn't have time for his 14-year-old son who plays electric guitar most of his waking life and spends the rest of his time ignoring his father or talking back. Didn't this guy read the rulebook on parenting? You never give the impression to a teenager that you don't have time to listen to them, or you might as well just buy him a membership in the Delinquent-of-the-Month Club. That's what's happened with Bobby (Trevor Morgan, "Jurassic Park III"), who's doing bad things (for a suburb) like toilet papering a neighbor's yard and hanging out with two guys who have more piercings and attitude that he does. Then there's little Gina Mantegna's daughter, Gina), who desperately wants nothing more than a dog, and whose only flaw seems to be that she wants to watch TV while she eats (and does so) instead of eating with the family. But it's yet another example of how Dad is insensitive to his children's needs and how this family can't even come together for a meal.
Enter Uncle Nino, who somehow makes it past customs with Italian salami and bread, which in his simple peasant manner he offers to share with another person waiting at the airport. In a matter of days, Nino also goes from speaking only five phrases in English to knowing enough of the language to deliver homilies about the way life should be lived. We watch him bond with each of the children, who initially resist him, and try to do the same with the adults--only to have some of his efforts backfire. And yes, we watch him work his miracles on this dysfunctional family, even getting one of the delinquents to stop smoking by simply telling him it's bad for you and "Abraham Lincoln didn't smoke." If only this kid's father knew it was that easy!
That's the problem with films like this. They're just a little too facile when it comes to problems and resolutions. And yet, there's something quite likeable about "Uncle Nino." The character is a warm fuzzy, and his deus-ex-machine role is still somehow fun to watch, though even the youngest members of your family will be able to guess well in advance what happens. There's gentle humor here, too, to go along with the big heart and good intentions. And these days, how many films for families exist where the strongest language is a single utterance of "dickhead" and a few "that sucks" thrown around? With no nudity, no violence, and a built-in lesson that grandparents and old people should be appreciated, even revered--something that in America hasn't really been a part of "family values." Some of the scenes move along a little too slowly, but that's my only other complaint. "Uncle Nino" is Dove-approved, meaning even the Christian organization that reviews films thinks this film is okay to watch. And to make something that wholesome which is also still entertaining is no easy feat these days.
A number of scenes have heavy grain and some noise, and so "Uncle Nino," really isn't the kind of film that's made for Blu-ray. I haven't seen the DVD, but my guess is that if you have a Blu-ray player that upscales DVDs well, you'll get close to the same results. Colors are strong, at least, as are black levels and the sensation of 3-dimensionality. But the video presentation (1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen) is nothing special.
The audio appears to be a Dolby Digital 5.1, though no information is available. But it's not a great soundtrack for HD. The bass never really gets off the ground, and there's not much in the way of ambient sound except when the volume ratchets up a few notches for action scenes (which, in a film like this, means rototilling or playing garage-band music).
The only bonus feature is about a 20-minute montage of Joe and Gina Mantegna's responses to off-stage questions--things like "What's it like working with each other?" It's pretty standard, as interviews go, and the information you get is, as in the film itself, somewhat predictable.
"Uncle Nino" debuted at one theater in Grand Rapids, Mich., and survived there for a full year because of word of mouth, which gave the filmmakers the courage to release nationwide. As a film in general, "Uncle Nino" would probably be no more than a 6 out of 10 because it's predictable, it's corny, it's a little slow-moving in spots, and it comes with the kind of problem-solution movement that characterizes Christian films. Yet it's still warm and engaging, the way that Frank Capra's films were, despite all their Capracorn. Judged strictly as a family film? I think "Uncle Nino" would probably merit a 7.