Picks and Pans Review: Ismail Merchant's Florence Filming and Feasting in Tuscany

UPDATED 08/01/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/01/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Ismail Merchant

For many, Florence is a place where one can throw open the shutters to vivid landscapes and the sounds of arias—in other words, the charming Italian city portrayed in A Room with a View. In this lusciously illustrated volume—part memoir, part gastronomic tour and recipe book—renowned producer Ismail Merchant recalls his own experiences filming in Tuscany's medieval jewel. The result is a work as unabashedly sensual and seductive as his 1986 movie.

Before beginning the project, "I tried to think of the films that had been shot in Florence, but couldn't come up with any," Merchant recalls. "It should have been a warning." Filming did have its challenges, like negotiating the city's narrow lanes and packed piazzas. Still, Merchant and director James Ivory persisted with one goal in mind—finding the perfect view of the title.

When that was accomplished, another preoccupation took its place—Tuscan food. "The inevitable shop talk over a film-set lunch now completely changed character," Merchant writes. "It seemed more like a seminar on the comparative merits of the various eating places and chefs in the city." After the Italian crew recoiled at the catered meals and were given permission to provide their own food, they soon found their English coworkers sneaking over to their side of the lunch line. Merchant, an accomplished cook, was among the converts and reveled in the local food markets.

Somehow, "between the breakfasts and lunches, and the lunches and dinners," the film got made. Merchant's charm certainly played a part. Actress Helena Bonham Carter recalls the time he was confronted by "hordes of disgruntled and uncomprehending tourists who had traveled from afar to see the Piazza Signoria only to be faced by an Indian gentleman explaining to them that they could not because he owned it for the day"—and how he soothed the masses by buying them ice cream. When Merchant departed, the Italian crew gave him a present—a silver frame inscribed For the Most Congenial Producer. For armchair travelers, he is the most congenial guide. (Abrams, $39.95)

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