October 6, 2003 -- “Under the Tuscan Sun” is one of the better romantic comedies in recent years. It is also unusual in that the star and director are both women, making it a movie about women, created by women. This is quite rare in the male-dominated world of Hollywood films. This is not one of your typical, brain-dead comedies where most of the characters are idiots. Here, the people are smart, they only act crazy sometimes because they are in love. The comedy is bittersweet, but as warm and soft as the Tuscan sun.
Diane Lane of “Unfaithful” stars as Frances, an author who goes through a painful divorce and ends up buying an old house in Italy to get away from it all. She has a hard time overcoming over her grief and getting on with her life. The people she meets in Tuscany help her to put her past behind her. One of those she meets is a local character named Katherine (played by Lindsay Duncan “A Midsummer Night's Dream”). Katherine is one of those standard over-the-top theatrical-type characters who live very unconventional lives and are indifferent commonly accepted forms of morality. Frances believes Katherine has found the perfect way to confront life, but she lacks the courage to live in such an outrageous way.
Frances also meets a handsome young man Marcello (Raoul Bova) who helps her forget her past troubles. A kindly real estate agent, Martini (Vincent Riotta of “Heaven”) also does his best to cheer her up. Frances slowly collects a sort of family around her, made up of the odd crew of workmen who are fixing up her old house. One of the workers, Pawel (Pawel Szadja), falls in love with Chiara (Giulia Steigerwalt), a local girl. The romance seems doomed since Pawel is Polish and the girl's parents do not approve of the union. The odd household is joined by Frances' troubled American friend Patti (Sandra Oh of “Big Fat Liar”), who is pregnant. Frances, who moved away from the U.S. to avoid her problems, seems to be attracting more problems like a magnet, and many of these problems are not of her own doing.
As you can tell, there is quite a bit of sadness in this bittersweet comedy, but it is a humanistic tale so warm it overcomes the sadness and becomes quite life-affirming. The movie argues that the feeling that young love will last forever is just that, a feeling. Love may, or may not, bring happiness. It may also bring heartbreak and sorrow. There are those, even in Italy, who do not believe in love. Chiara's parents, for instance, argue that love doesn't last. They are more interested in securing their daughter's financial future. The movie argues that even those who don't believe in the transformative power of love still want to believe in it despite their foolish common sense. This is not a silly romantic comedy which is blind to the dangers of love. It wisely addresses those dangers and sorrows as well as the joys. It makes the case for a notion best expressed by the poet Kahlil Gibran in “The Prophet,” who said that it is none other than the depth of our sorrows which hollows out the cup of our joy so that it can hold more. This film reminds me of an academy award winning film a few years back, “Antonia's Line.”
The story, based on a book by Frances Mayes, was adapted to the screen by writer-director Audrey Wells (“Guinevere”). The story is expertly balanced on that razor's edge of joy and sorrow. The cinematography by Geoffrey Simpson (“Shine”) is stunning, aided by a palate of warm colors in both costumes and production design. Diane Lane gives a very powerful, star-making performance in the leading role. Sure, she probably won't get nominated for an academy award like she did in last year's film, “Unfaithful,” but she is as good, or better in this film, and this film will make a lot more money at the box office. Lane should be getting some good movie offers in the near future because of this film's success. This film rates a B+.
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