Based on the best selling novel by Frances Mayes, “Under the Tuscan Sun” is a pleasant journey of self-discovery and re-invention. It follows the real life story of noted writer and book critic Frances Mayes on a vacation to the Italian countryside. And it deals with her life altering decision to purchase a small villa in Tuscany, make new friends, find love, and begin life anew. Starring Academy Award nominee Diane Lane, “Under the Tuscan Sun” is a charming, highly entertaining romantic adventure full of life, spectacular vistas, and sensual delight.
Frances Mayes is a well-known San Francisco author and book critic whose world turns upside down upon the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. Painfully, she endures the post-breakup trauma while being overwhelmed with apathy in dealing with the divorce settlement. Rather than fight, she concedes, wanting to leave it all behind her. But despite moving into a single apartment by herself, she can’t escape the depression nor can she stand her current lifestyle. To help Frances break away from the blues, her friend Patti gives her a gift of a lifetime – a ten-day trip into the heart of Italy.
Initially, Frances rejects the offer, but after quick deliberation, decides to take a chance. Upon her arrival, Frances comes across a villa for sale. The villa’s name is Bramasole, or “something that yearns for the sun.” Impulsively, she purchases the home, hoping to start the new life she’s always dreamed of. But following her purchase, she realizes that things are much more complicated – the house is a fixer-upper in desperate need of repair, she is all alone and doesn’t know anyone who can help her, and she doesn’t speak the language. Adding to her troubles is a terrible thunderstorm, a run in with some of unwanted visitors, a lack of running water, and a collapsing inner wall. Yet unexpectedly, these adventures attract the attention of the locals, who quickly befriend her and rush to her aid.
Gradually, Frances begins to fit in, and even stumbles into an unforeseen romance. As things begin to improve, friendships begin to emerge, and her confidence gains momentum, Frances comes to realize that “unthinkably good things can happen, even late in the game.”
Going into this film, I had expectations that were centered on the notion that this would be a chick flick of sorts with a moving travelogue of Tuscany. Nothing more. But I was pleasantly surprised to see that the film is more than a chick flick, more than a travel video. “Under the Tuscan Sun” actually has substance, not to mention a phenomenal performance by Diane Lane. Lane gives her character such unfeigned compassion and sensitivity that you wonder if many of her character’s pratfalls actually come from real life experience. When she laughs, you can feel the irony and subtle frustration of disappointment and when she prances around the bedroom after returning from a night of romance, you share in her glee. Far exceeding her dynamic performance as Connie Sumner, the bored housewife turned infidel in the Academy nominated “Unfaithful,” Lane carries this film in the palm of her hand and is exuberant about showing us what’s inside.
“I’m in Italy. I can hire the muscular descendents or Roman Gods,” says Frances to her friend Patti while responding to doubts about her spontaneous purchase in Tuscany. The film is covered in descriptive dialogue and romantic description. It’s quick-witted, earthy, and real, leaving no doubt that the original work was written by a talented, expressive author. In one scene in particular, Frances transforms a blank post card into a masterpiece: “Clichés converge at this navel of the world, a Marchese reads his newspaper in a slant of sun, Nuns in lock-step lick ice creams, Madonnas smoke cigarettes in bars, a hunched crone in a flowered dress talks on a cell phone.” Such substance makes a successful transition to screen; however, in the area of character development, the adaptation took more liberty to deviate. Quirky characters such as Katherine, who looks and acts like a Fellini movie star, and Marcello, who acts and talks like Fabio, could have been re-worked in a more logical, less-stereotypical way.
Nonetheless, the film succeeds because it takes risks and pokes fun of itself all the while taking us to Tuscany and Frances on an adventure of self-discovery. “I bought a house for a life I don’t even have.” Here, Frances jumps into unfamiliar territory; she is lost in a foreign world that is unrecognizable and she goes from one crisis to another, gasping for intervention. I recently reviewed the film “Lost in Translation” about two Americans displaced in Japan who are each going through different crises, have a chance encounter with each other, build a unique friendship, and then inspire one another into brighter futures. “Under the Tuscan Sun” takes a page from that film as Frances goes through a bitter divorce, escapes to Tuscany, buys a new home, and endures all of the pitfalls associated with the “Money Pit.” But surprisingly, the experience pays off. She encounters new friends who encourage her and although it might not have been the life she envisioned when she first purchased the home, she realizes that she ended up with something much better.
“Under the Tuscan Sun” exceeds expectations while delivering an uplifting, almost poetic experience. With a distinguished performance by Diane Lane and a brisk, yet essential adaptation of Frances Mayes’ bestseller, the film goes beyond your typical fish out of water movie to resonate on a more intimate and personal level. Sure, the Italian mosaic is breathtaking from Cortona to Positano and the pastoral countryside replete with cypress trees, gentle hills, and the spectacular mountains of the Alpi. But under the Tuscan sun, one only need to ask in jealous amusement: “Why her and not me?”