Under the Tuscan Sun
Call it My Big Fat Italian Fling! Diane Lane once again tumbles into bed with a hunky
European--only this time she's a divorcee searching for true love in this romantic comedy
set in scenic Tuscany.
In Unfaithful, Diane Lane cheated on Richard Gere with French stud Olivier Martinez.
Now Lane's the victim of an extramarital affair in this heavily fictionalized and
romanticized rendering of writer Frances Mayes' 1996 memoir of her Tuscany travels.
Novelist and book critic Frances Mayes (Lane) is so consumed with her work that she's
completely oblivious to her husband's extramarital dalliances. She only finds out when
an aspiring writer breaks the bad news to her as revenge for panning his novel. The
subsequent divorce hits Frances so hard that her pregnant gay pal Patti (Sandra Oh)
packs off her to Italy for a tour of Tuscany. Blinded by the region's beauty, Frances makes
a spontaneous decision to buy a villa in the town of Cortona. It's a good thing Frances
loves terrible ideas. The villa is a money pit, so she hires a ragtag bunch of builder to
knock the place back into shape. But as the villa regains its incandescence, Frances
realizes that she has bought a huge home for a life she does not have. She has no
family, her friends are back home in San Francisco, and her love life is nonexistent.
She's fond of realtor Signor Martini (Vincent Riotta), but he's very married and very
faithful. Then, while running an errand in Rome, she bumps into handsome antiques
dealer Marcello (Raoul Bova). He seems like a smooth operator at first, but his intentions
turn out to be purely honorable. Frances is so beguiled that she drags Marcello into bed.
Can one night of passion produce a lifetime of love? That's the challenge Frances strives
to meet. But Under the Tuscan Sun isn't concerned with defining a woman solely by her
martial status. Writer/director Audrey Wells hammers homes the message that good
can come out of the pain and suffering caused by the end of a marriage. There's nothing
particularly radical about this notion, so Wells instead sets out to spur the brokenhearted
into reclaiming their lives. With wit, sensitivity but little imagination, Wells shows that
Tuscany isn't so much a place but a state of mind achievable through risk and
Unfaithful's triumph as a treatise on adultery hinged solely on Diane Lane's willingness
to challenge herself beyond the point of her physical and emotional limits. She was
surprisingly brave and truthful in an otherwise vacant and phony look at a marriage
coming apart at the seams. And Lane was rewarded with a deserved Oscar nomination.
As a followup to Unfaithful, Under the Tuscan Sun initially covers similar ground. In both
films, she convincingly portrays smart, attractive women inexplicably neglected by their
husbands. Unlike Unfaithful, in which Lane embarks on an affair that turns deadly, Under the Tuscan Sun forces her to look for love in the arms of another man. Dramatically, Lane doesn't face the same demands made of her by the sexually explicit Unfaithful. But it does give her the rare opportunity to try her hand at the kind of romantic charmers that Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock monopolize. Lane struggles at first to set the
appropriate comic tone, but that's more to do with the gloomy facade and demeanor of
the film's opening moments. Once Frances touches down in Italy, Lane lightens up and
glows with warmth and charm befitting of her lush surroundings. Frances may spend a
little too much moping, but Lane makes her a sympathetic soul with love and
compassion to burn. The men in Frances' life are all attractive and charismatic. Raoul
Bova makes Marcello honest and caring, but he disappears too often and for too long
after his initial tryst with France to make a genuine love connection with Lane. Besides,
we long for Frances to end up with in the arms of the older and gentlemanly Vincent
Riotta. But Riotta's Signor Martini is happily married, and Frances is not a home wrecker. Oddly, the childless Frances enjoys greater success as a mother figure than an object of
desire. She takes under her wing star-crossed lovers Pawel and Chiara, a penniless
Polish laborer and the daughter of an Italian olive grower, played with youthful
exuberance by Pawel Szadja and Giulia Steigerwalt. She also offers opens her home to
gal pal Patti, who's pregnant and suddenly single. Sandra Oh knows that the gay best
friend is a stale stereotype that exists solely as a sounding board for our heroine. So she
works hard to make Patti a funny and perceptive source of comfort, and one who makes
you feel for her own sets of problems and priorities.
It all comes down to location, location, location for director Audrey Wells. She employs
both San Francisco and Tuscany as metaphors for Frances' life during and after divorce.
The Bay City is grim, confining and devoid of hope. But the clouds of depression part the
moment Frances leaves her broken heart in San Francisco. Tuscany is sunny, inviting
and filled with endless possibilities. There are the occasional storms to weather--electrical and emotional--but that comes with the territory. For the most part, all Wells has
to do is plop her cameras beside a lake or on a hill and Tuscany's warmth and passion
shines strong and bright. This goes a long way to ensuring her second directorial effort is
a more radiant and satisfying affair than her first, the solemn and occasionally creepy
May-to-December romance Guinevere. But Under the Tuscan Sun isn't just preoccupied
with picture-postcard locales. Much humor comes out of Frances' admirable attempt to
knock her old house into shape. Taps don't work. Warm water bubbles out of the toilet.
Windows fly open the moment a gust kicks up. Yet there's never any doubt that the more
work Frances puts into fixing her house, the likelier she's going to repair her life. But
Wells makes it too obvious that Frances isn't going to be holed up in the villa by herself
for too long. You just know Patti will arrive in Tuscany the second Frances falls for
Marcello and inadvertently complicate matters of the heart. And that Patti's water will
break before Frances' water pipe woes are finally resolved. Still, these trials and
tribulations allow Frances to credibly emerge from her divorce-induced funk and to move
forward. You can't help but cheer for Frances when she dances with joy after sleeping
with Marcello. Does this mean Frances has found the man of her dreams? That would be
telling. And it almost seems besides the point. Wells is more interested in demonstrating
that a woman doesn't need a man by her side to be truly happy. Not that Wells wants
Frances to live the rest of her days alone. True love takes time to cultivate, no regardless
of whether you're in Tuscany or San Francisco.
What is it about Diane Lane and the men who foolishly take her for granted? No matter,
because it's starting to bring out the best in her. So book a trip to Italy and enjoy how
Frances got her groove back.