Fresh from her no fault California divorce, San Francisco writer Frances Mayes (Diane Lane) is about to have her life turned around when her pregnant friend Patti (Sandra Oh) gives her a first class ticket to Tuscany, Italy. On impulse she buys a charming but dilapidated villa called Bramasole and Francesca immerses herself in the friendship and romance she discovers "Under the Tuscan Sun."
Director/writer Audrey Wells takes literary license in her free-handed adaptation of Frances Mayes first book of memoirs about her life in Italy. Wells actually uses elements of Frances's true-life adventures of living in an ancient land where life, wine and food are the important things. The screenplay changes things from the book on one important point - Frances is divorced. This one difference helps to give "Under the Tuscan Sun" a depth that propels it from travelogue to a sweet, sometimes funny sometimes melancholy, romance.
Diane Lane, beautifully tanned and looking gorgeous, embodies Frances. When we first meet her, she is at a party where she is confronted by a writer whose book she gave a bad review - it isn't a pretty scene. Then, she learns that her husband is divorcing her and wants alimony. Actually, his new fiancée wants the house that Frances has spent years making perfect and he buys his ex-wife's share. Her life suddenly in a whirl, France moves into a short-term apartment complex that houses, mainly, divorced, unhappy people. Not to worry, she is assured by the manager, with her writing skills she can help the other tenants with their suicide notes. Patti, very pregnant and unable to travel, and her same sex mate give Frances their tickets for a trip to Tuscany (on a gay bus tour) and the writer reluctantly accepts. When visiting one little town she sees a beautiful old villa, Bramasole, listed for sale. She thinks nothing of it until, later, the bus stops - right in front of the aforementioned villa. She impulsively takes her bags and leaves the tour. Once inside the beautiful old manor she meets the aged owner and her realtor, Senor Martini (Vincent Riotta). Another couple is also interested in the property and the old lady starts to make outrageous price demands. The German couple leaves. Then, a pigeon poops on Frances and it is a "signale de Deo" for the owner and the villa that "yearns for the sun" belongs to the pretty American. Frances hires a contactor and his three Polish workers to repair and renovate Bramasole. She falls in love with the slow-paced, peaceful life of Tuscany and learns to love the ways of the locals. She keeps crossing paths with an expatriated, elegant Brit, Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), who keeps offering words of advise about love and Italy. She also has a chance meeting with a handsome man, Marcello (Raoul Bova), who hits her with his come-on lines - "That's exactly the kind of thing we American women think Italian men say." She then asks him to sleep with her. "That's exactly the kind of thing we Italian men think American women say," he responds, smiling.
The cast of beautiful people, besides Lane, make "Under the Tuscan Sun" easy on the eyes, especially for the ladies. Italian hunk superstar, Bova, is what every woman would think of as a romantic Roman and his Marcello brings that to the screen unaffectedly. Riotta gives dimension to his portray of Senor Martini as a man who falls for the beauty, warmth and vulnerability of the American but, married with children, will only allow himself to admire from afar. It's a small role but the actor gives it believable depth - especially with a soliloquy about a trainless train track in the Alps as a metaphor of hope and belief. A little side story has Frances playing cupid for one of the Polish workers, Pawel (Pawel Szadja), and a local girl, Chiara (Giulia Steigerwalt), as they must overcome the girl's father's prejudice about foreigners. Another thread that is nicely woven into the tapestry of "Under the Tuscan Sun" involves bon vivant Katherine and the troubles that can cast dark shadows over a seemingly carefree existence. This culminates in a well-done homage to the Trevi Fountain scene from Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" that is striking.
Audrey Wells does a solid job in both adapting the Mayes memoir and giving the basic story a life of its own on the big screen. She gets good performances from all involved and musters the behind-the-camera crew with an assured hand. It also helps to have the beautiful locations and the lensing ability of Geoffrey Simpson. Production design, under Stephen McCabe, helps make Bramasole a major character in the film. Nicoletta Ercole's costume design melds nicely with the overall look and warmth of the Tuscan sun.
"Under the Tuscan Sun " is, first and foremost, a chick flick that deserves a good showing at the box office from its target audience. It has romance, beautiful people, a magnificent backdrop in Tuscany, Rome and Florence, good characters and a nice arc of hope. I give it a B.
Writer Frances Mayes (Diane Lane, "Unfaithful") is devastated to discover that her husband is having an affair and wants their home in a divorce settlement. Best friend Patti (Sandra Oh, "Big Fat Liar") is having a baby with her female partner, who does not want her to travel now that she's pregnant, so Patti gifts Frances with their upgraded plane ticket for a gay tour of Tuscany. Frances agrees to go after some prodding and once there, her spontaneous act emboldens her to buy an old Italian family villa based on nothing but impulse and coincidence in Writer/director Audrey Wells's (screenwriter, "Disney's The Kid," "Guinevere") liberal adaptation of Mayes's book, "Under the Tuscan Sun."
Audrey Wells has taken what could have been nothing more than an episodic travelogue and given it real humor and heart. Although she's stocked "Under the Tuscan" with enough quirky characters to have mired it in treacly cliche, the film never seems forced, instead skipping along to its own romantic beat. Diane Lane's multi-layered, natural performance helps ground the supporting players and keeps "Under the Tuscan Sun" from floating off into the ether.
In the Cortona marketplace, Frances is intrigued by a beautiful older blonde decked out extravagantly in a black dress and large black hat exulting in the down of a duckling she strokes across her face. This woman appears out of nowhere as Frances peers at an ad for Bramasole, a picturesque country villa. 'Are you going to buy it?' asks Katherine (Lindsay Duncan, "Mansfield Park"). Frances backs away but the woman plants a seed with parting comment 'Terrible idea - don't you just love those?' paraphrasing one of Frances's own philosophies of writing. When her tour bus stops right outside the gates of Bramasole, the coincidence is too strong to resist and she disembarks and never looks back.
Fate again comes into play when Frances finds she must bid against a German couple to a superstitious Italian matriarch being assisted by realtor Mr. Martini (Vincent Riotta, "Heaven"). He organizes contractor interviews and Frances settles for a practical older Italian with an odd trio of Polish laborers, a group she delights with cooking extravaganzas. The youngest of these, Pawel (Pawel Szadja), begins a surreptitious romance with Frances's neighbors' daughter Chiara (Giulia Steigerwalt) while the soulfully silent Jerzy (Valentine Pelka, "The Pianist") yearns for Frances herself. A trip to Rome for chandelier accessories results in a run-in with a handsome stranger, Marcello (Raoul Bova, "Avenging Angelo"), and soon Frances is delighted to find herself having a lusty tumble in a Positano antiques shop (Lane is to be envied her trysts with hunky foreigner's amidst dusty wares!). The unexpected arrival of a very pregnant - and heartbroken - Patti makes scheduling time with the distant Marcello difficult, but is he the man who will give her the wedding and family she yearns for at Bramasole?
Wells peoples her screenplay with those looking for love yet learning to connect with life, best exemplified by Fellini discovery Katherine's wistful description of Giulietta Massina in "Nights of Cabiria." Tuscany's sun provides hope that San Francisco's damp cannot, as evidenced by the humorous gloom of 'divorce camp,' a dreary temporary apartment lodging where Frances takes her initial refuge.
Lane carries the film with an emotional arc that brings her from confident contentedness to shellshock to vibrant rediscovery and an appreciation for life's gifts which effortlessly allows her to come full circle. Her early depression and resignation is shown silently, as she abandons her belongings in her beautifully decorated home to another woman, stopping at a foyer table to pick up a cobalt vase, pour its water onto the floor (like tears being shed) and pocket it. Months later, when her three formerly pitiful boxes of books arrive in Tuscany, she lights up handling her things from a past life.
Of the large ensemble cast, Riotta makes the strongest impression as a family man who falls for Frances but channels his emotions into something more honorable. When Frances has her one major breakdown after a terrifying thunderstorm, Riotta tries to comfort her, then finally begs 'Please stop crying or I'll have to make love to you myself and I've never been unfaithful to my wife.' The actor conveys multiple emotions in this one line reading. Duncan has a blast as the hedonistic aging beauty who lives life based on the philosophies of Fellini. Her drunken recreation of "La Dolce Vita's" fountain scene is a marvel. Oh is dryly humorous and the type of best friend anyone woman would wish for without seeming unreal. She glows with maternal joy after the birth of her child. Bova is perfect as the well meaning heartthrob who isn't too good to be true and Pelka gives a performance worthy of the silent screen with his silent, respectful passion.
Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson ("Black and White") is blessed with beautiful Italian locations and shows them off to best advantage without over glossing the images. Costumer Nicoletta Ercole ("The Last Kiss") is particularly adept at reviving retro Italian movie glamor for Duncan and dresses Lane in a knockout white number when she finally makes it back to Positano after reading that Marcello has dreamed of her in a white dress.
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