Under the Tuscan Sun
In the closing credits of Audrey Wells’ film of Under the Tuscan Sun, there’s a note saying, “This film is based on the book by Frances Mayes, but certain characters and events have been fictionalized for dramatic purposes.” I couldn’t help wondering, “What purposes are those?” because real drama is not easy to find in Under the Tuscan Sun.
But we don’t go to movies like this for drama; we go to bask vicariously in gorgeous Italian scenery—hopefully with a suitable complement of appealing, oddball, rustic characters; a dash of romance (or, failing that, at least a little spicy sex); and one or two scenes that feature those legendary, mouth-watering Italian meals—like a PBS travelogue, but with Diane Lane instead of Rick Steves.
I remember buying Mayes’ 1996 book as Christmas presents for a couple of friends, although I never got the chance to read it myself. But even a quick skim shows the liberties Wells has taken in writing and directing the movie. Mayes (played by Lane) is still a divorcée, and she still buys and renovates a 300-year-old villa, but Wells jettisons her companion, Ed (he’s just going to get in the way when the inevitable Italian hunk comes along), and compresses a process that took several summers (the real-life Mayes did, after all, have a regular job, teaching at San Francisco State University) into one eventful year. And Wells supplies the movie Mayes with something no date-movie heroine these days is complete without: a gay best friend. Wells deserves half a point for originality, though: Wells makes the friend a woman. Her name is Patti (Sandra Oh), and she not only provides the impetus for Mayes’ Italian adventure but also shows up at the crucial moment to share it.
When Mayes’ marriage collapses, and her husband gets their ritzy San Francisco house, she winds up moving into a ratty short-term apartment building inhabited exclusively by other people in her position (the sobbing of the neighbors provides a hilarious underscore to Mayes’ own solitude).
When the pregnant Patti and her partner decide not to travel during Patti’s first trimester, they cash in the tickets for their Italian vacation for a single first-class passage for Mayes—you know, to get her out of town so she can clear her head with the fresh northern air, etc. And hey, no pressure, romance-wise: It’s a gay tour of Italy.
In a routine stop on the tour, Mayes sees and is smitten with the villa Bramasole (“Yearning for the Sun”), and in negotiating to buy the place, she makes her first new friend in Italy: the real-estate agent Signore Martini (Vincenzo Ricotta, in a charming performance). Other friendships grow, with the contractor she hires to oversee the renovation (his English vocabulary, in its entirety, consists of “OK, yes”) and with the band of Polish émigré laborers who do the work. One of the workers (Pawel Szadja) provides the film with a minor subplot by falling in love with a neighbor’s daughter (Giulia Steigerwalt). Her father doesn’t approve of a Polish match for his daughter, it seems; the suspense of this story thread is low-key, to say the least.
Midway through Mayes’ remodeling project, the pregnant Patti shows up, having been dumped by her partner. Also, Mayes meets her Italian heartthrob (Raoul Bova) when she flies into his arms to avoid the advances of a group of Roman men. Thus, they meet in a “cute” way—to avoid getting picked up by them, she gets picked up by him. After a weekend of wild lovemaking, Mayes is able to return to Bramasole with renewed vigor. (Wells would have us believe that Mayes—that is, the film character played by Lane—fears she’ll never find love again. Yeah right.)
Under the Tuscan Sun is the kind of film where the star, the scenery and the food share more or less equal billing. The glorious, sun-soaked cinematography is by Geoffrey Simpson. I’m afraid I wasn’t quick enough to catch any culinary credits (no doubt Simpson deserves at least partial credit for the food’s appearance, too). Wells gives us a pleasant change of scenery with enjoyable companions and no unexpected surprises—just what we want in a good vacation.