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Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)

PG-13 · 113 minutes

Directed by Audrey Wells
Written by Audrey Wells, Frances Mayes

 · Diane Lane
 · Sandra Oh
 · Lindsay Duncan
 · Raoul Bova

Review by Thom Stricklin

The past year's been an interesting one for me, concerning interest in foreign culture. I never would've considered myself ethnocentric, but as of late last summer, I was quite content with the "culture" available here in the states: films, tourism, and so forth. After being inspired by an adventurous friend, however, and exposing myself to foreign films like Amélie (now my absolute favorite movie), The Bicycle Theif and Cinema Paradiso, films set abroad, like the recent Lost in Translation, and film fans online, I feel my horizons have broadened considerably. A film isn't automatically better because I require dubbing or subtitles to understand it--such an attitude is just as close-minded as those who won't go near a foreign film--but I've quickly learned that other countries, other cultures, each have different things to offer in film that we don't get much of from Hollywood.

It also seems that, despite political disagreement, general audience interest in foreign films has increased here as of late. That alone would make me interested to watch the response of American cinema with films like Under the Tuscan Sun, but I have even more specific interest in this film: one of my own screenwriting projects is an adaptation of the journal my friend kept on her trip to France. Going in, there seemed to be a lot of similarity between Under the Tuscan Sun and my project (tentatively titled Living a Dream, for anyone who cares).




As I hoped, Tuscan Sun did provide a number of indications of what could be done right or wrong about a "time abroad" film. First and foremost, this is a warm, timelessly beautiful film. The director and cinematographer must feel somewhat guilty of cheating--it would be hard to make the Tuscan countryside and architecture look unimpressing. At least Wells seemed to understand this fact and make the most of it. Use of repeated images such as venerations to the saints, sunflowers, owls, and running water give the film a lot of visual and symbolic continuity.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the plot, which I found to be surprisingly episodic and spotty in nature. Themes that seemed might take a strong hold later in the film (such as Frances' new appreciation for the virgin Mary) were dismissed to the background almost as quickly as they came on screen.

The plot also suffers from a mild case of what I call Lizzie Maguire syndrome: it takes the foreign experience for granted, at times utilizing American or English characters and clichés that take away from the film's charm.

If the film lacks a good attention span, its childish behavior at least matches that of the main character. To say nothing of Diane Lane, I was hoping her character Frances would be a little more patient and wise than she turned out to be. Sadly, she was in fact little more than the whiny, helpless divorcée type that usually gets poked fun of in a supporting role of any other movie. The only great shreds of wisdom come from her voiceover narratives, which seem rather unnatural, more the result of an effective writer's prose than a heartbroken woman's revelations.




Make no mistake, however... Despite flaws, many of which probably stem from the autobiographical source, Under the Tuscan Sun is an absolute charmer of a film. Like the Tuscan countryside itself, every last part and player in this film glows warmly. It's no surprise that this is most true for Diane Lane, whose smile alone surely brought in a lot of the film's audience. I can't help but wonder how she has only just recently received recognition as an actress, as she exhibits more grace and natural ease on screen than many of the established red-carpet actresses of the past decade.

To end the praise for the cast at Lane would be a major oversight. Sandra Oh breezes beyond a couple of San Franciscan clichés to steal most of the scenes she's in, even out from under Diane Lane. Lindsay Duncan is similarly more-than-perfect as Katherine, an airheaded English woman and an obvious doppleganger to Frances.

The real highlight among the supporting characters, however, is Martini, played by Vincent Riotta. Despite an unfortunate name, Martini is a gallant, soft-spoken Italian who is faithfully married but sincerely cares for Frances. He's the antithesis of the Italian male sterotype, one that all too many Italian males live up to. Much moreso than well-to-do and carefree Katherine, Martini instills the audience with the most faith in Frances, as he proves the right sort of man does, at least, exist, even if he may be unavailable.



Under the Tuscan Sun is successful as a feel-good movie, and Frances' immaturity might just be natural enough to make her relatable to those in the same life situation. This is a charmer and eye-pleaser for more than just divorcées, however... Most women and some men should find something to enjoy in it. And don't be surprised if you find yourself contemplating a vacation to Tuscany yourself.

All in all, Under the Tuscan Sun didn't reach its full potential--thinking wishfully, maybe that can be left up to my project--but it should live up to most expectations. A good film for a girls' night out if you can still catch it in theatres; otherwise, a safe choice and worthy rental when it comes to DVD.

892 Words · Published: 19 October 2003

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