Film Reviews

UNDER THE TUSCAN SUN

By • Sep 26th, 2003 •

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Buena Vista / Touchstone Pictures presents a Timnick Films/Blue Gardenia production
Running time — 113 minutes / MPAA rating: PG-13

The movie truism, “It’s all about casting” triumphs here. Diane Lane’s strength lies in her skill of expressing sadness and inner desperation while not being the depressing center of a film that drags itself into the abyss. (I’m thinking here of AMERCIAN SPLENDOR, but it has the notable distinction of being about two ugly, clinically depressed people who are very angry. Imagine having comic books all about you and having artists draw scenes from your suffocating, boring life? Can you still heroically hang on to being miserable?)

Lane doesn’t need her dynamic UNFAITHFUL co-star Olivier Martinez as a sexual foil to captivate the screen with sensuality.

Frances Mayes’s 1999 best selling memoir, according to the press notes, dealt with her, and her husband, buying and renovating a 300-year old Tuscany villa. (The house has been the motherlode for Mayes. She has a thriving cottage industry centered around that villa.)

I wonder how many of us can afford even a rundown, crumbling Tuscany villa?

Writer/director Audrey Wells does a brilliant job taking the source material and creating a wonderful story filled with an uplifting, life-affirming message. Wells does this without even touching the life-affirming part (and I say this as a person who hates “life-affirming” movies.) Yet this is exactly what the audience takes away from the movie. And the endearing sadness that permeates TUSCAN SUN gives it a pathos that everyone can relate to. Everyone has been at the bleak point of no return. What do you do? Everyone has had their heart broken and faced the distinct possibility that it will never heal.

Though it’s a tough reality to face, some people have to create a life without a mate.

San Francisco writer Frances (Lane) is suddenly catapulted into a divorce. She didn’t have a clue it was coming. Her husband wants the house she brought with her mother’s money. His girlfriend likes the house and neighborhood schools. He buys Frances out. Like all of us would do, she leaves the gorgeous house with merely three boxes of books. She moves into a furnished room. Her gay friends give her a ten-day bus trip to Tuscany. Reluctantly, Frances goes and is captivated by a villa named “Bramasole” in Cortona.

Cortona, most importantly, is the resting place of the incorruptible body of Saint Margaret. Her body lies in a glass-sided reliquary under the main altar of the Basilica of Cortona. Saint Margaret has been on public view since her death in 1297!)

Frances impulsively buys the villa and finds out that it is collapsing. Luckily, she has the money to put the house right. Frances must face the challenges of the huge restoration and make a new life for herself. Don’t we love movies about broken-down houses? In a strange way, we can understand Frances’s choice. Devastated by divorce, crushed into despair, and having a windfall of money, why not restore a villa? Why not start a fresh life? A successful writer can work anywhere.

Soon Frances meets the townspeople. Katherine (Lindsay Duncan) is a middle-aged Brit who was Fellini’s teenage muse and is still, pleasurably, holding on to her past glory. Katherine represents the exotic life of a free-spirited Italian chatelaine. Frances hires a contractor, Nino (Massimo Sarchielli), and his team of Polish workers, Pawel (Pawel Szajda), Jerzy (Valentine Pelka), and Zbignew (Sasa Vulicevic). Helping her navigate with the Italians is Martini (Vincent Riotta), her real estate agent.

Of course, Italian men are renowned for appreciating women and Frances meets “cute” the handsome Marcello (Raoul Boya). Tall, well-built in a Monaco playboy kind of way and wearing breezy white shirts, Marcello sexily sweeps Frances off her feet. She thinks this is it and it ends in an unexpected way that reasserts the central theme of the movie. But Frances’s brief bedroom scene with Nino stays best in my mind. Mature and offhandedly handsome, Riotta nearly steals Italian heartthrob Boya’s romantic thunder with his compassionate, touching fondness for Frances.

And, as a textbook model for striking cinematic chemistry between actors, watch how Riotta plays his scenes with Lane.
Frances has to cancel a weekend with Marcello when her best friend Patti (Sandra Oh) turns up unexpectedly. Eight months pregnant and left by her female lover, Patti will be living with Frances. This is taken so matter-of-factly by the script that we regard Frances as a true, kind friend. Patti and the baby will be part of her family and new life in Tuscany. Frances is the kind of friend we would all want to turn to when our life implodes.

The villa has an olive grove and Nino’s teenage daughter falls in love with Pawal. Because he is not Italian and poor immigrant, Nino does not allow them to spend any time together. Frances, still believing in the power of young love, befriends Pawal. He becomes part of her family.

The outcome of TUSCAN SUN is too charming to reveal here. Instead I will say that Well’s has fashioned a beautiful, truthful script. Things work out, houses get filled, and you can learn a foreign language after thirty-five.


Credits:
Director-screenwriter: Audrey Wells
Based on the book by: Frances Mayes
Producers: Audrey Wells, Tom Sternberg
Executive producers: Laura Fattori, Sandy Kroopf, Mark Gill
Director of photography: Geoffrey Simpson
Production designer: Stephen McCabe
Music: Christophe Beck
Costume designer: Nicoletta Ercole
Editors: Andrew Marcus, Arthur Coburn

Cast:
Frances: Diane Lane
Patti: Sandra Oh
Katherine: Lindsay Duncan
Marcello: Raoul Bova
Martini: Vincent Riotta
Chiara: Giulia Steigerwalt
Pawel: Pawel Szajda
Jerzy: Valentine Pelka
Zbignew: Sasa Vulicevic
Nino: Massimo Sarchielli
Placido: Roberto Nobile
Old Man With Flowers: Mario Monicelli
Nona Cardinale: Evelina Gori
Signora Raguzzi: Claudia Gerini
Contessa: Laura Pestellini
Ed: David Sutcliffe

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