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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Under the Tuscan Sun (review)

All the Real Women

Oh, great day in the glorious sunshiny Tuscany morning! A movie about a woman that actual women will be able to identify with, one that’s fantastical enough to be diverting and down-to-earth enough to let us recognize ourselves in it. One that doesn’t lie and pretend that a man will save the day or romance will change your life for the better… and one that doesn’t pretend love still isn’t worth pursuing. One about the messy muddle we find ourselves in when we’ve got a world of choices and none of them seem right.

Of course, not many of us real women have the financial wherewithal to buy a villa in Tuscan on an impulse and spend a year renovating it, but that’s beside the point. The events that bring San Franciscan writer Frances there and the brick-by-brick creation of her new life have an emotional core of realism that is so precise and delicate and pinpoint accurate that it’s overwhelming, especially coming as it does as the undertone of a story that in itself if not appreciably original or even unpredictable. We can almost clock out when the big moments, the moments of triumph and disappointment, will arrive, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t emotionally overpowering. The details are nothing like my life, and yet I felt like Under the Tuscan Sun was speaking directly to me.

It’s all down to Diane Lane (Unfaithful, The Perfect Storm) as Frances, whose integrity and dignity and grounded reality turn this from something that might have been a groan-inducing, eye-rolling sop to sad gals looking for post-breakup, I-hate-my-life junk food into warm and satisfying living-the-independent-life comfort food . For all that she’s been a movie star forever, she seems like a real person onscreen, but more importantly, she seems like a grownup. None of that whinging, whiny “Life sucks, I hate men, somebody shoot me” adolescent chick-flick moping for her. It’s all heartfelt and genuine, so that even when her Frances is blindsided by the utterly unexpected collapse of her marriage, we can buy it that she — gorgeous, stunning, delicious, impossibly perfect — is worried that she’s no longer attractive, that she no longer “has it.” Her exuberance when she learns she does, in fact, still have it is too heartfelt and too explosive for her fear not to have been sincere, no matter how absurd it might seem for us on the outside looking in.

Sun, fictionalized by screenwriter/director Audrey Wells (Disney’s The Kid, George of the Jungle) from Frances Mayes memoir, reminded me, surprisingly, of Truly Madly Deeply — it’s not so devastating as Anthony Minghella’s ghost story, of course, but it follows a similar trail from loss to recovery to redemption, and exudes a similar exhilaration about the rediscovery of life along the way. Sun is a happier film, and how could it not be, filled with fields of sunflowers and cheery festivals and fabulous food and beautiful gardens. There’s little of the bittersweetness of Deeply — Frances is so betrayed by the loss of her marriage that we never see the ex-husband’s face, never even learn his name. He’s now a nonentity in Frances’s life, utterly the opposite of Deeply, and yet her sense of being at sea and unable to jumpstart her life are the same as that of Juliet Stevenson’s Deeply character. Here, though, as Frances rebuilds her life, it’s in a way that many woman — particularly single women — will recognize: dear friends become your close family, and their children and romances become part of your life, and even if and when there’s a man again, the new family never goes away.

It’s an expansive kind of optimism that fills Under the Tuscan Sun, of babies worth kissing and flowers worth sniffing and love and home and happiness worth sharing. It’s a wonderful celebration of how, when the ground shifts under her feet, one woman overcomes her fear and faces change head on, as frightening and as thrilling as change may be.


MPAA: rated PG-13 for sexual content and language

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

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