When her cad of a husband unexpectedly leaves her for a younger chippy (and wants alimony to boot), San Francisco book critic Frances (Diane Lane) is shocked. Soon after, she’s so depressed that she can’t imagine she can go on with her life. And so she has imagination foisted upon her, in the shape of a prepackaged trip to Italy, courtesy of her best friend Patti (Sandra Oh), who is worried that Frances is “in danger of never recovering” and whose own unforeseen circumstance—pregnancy—prohibits her from taking the trip herself.
Based on Frances Mayes’ best-selling memoir (1996), Audrey Welles’ Under the Tuscan Sun sends Frances off to Tuscany on a gay tour, as it had originally been scheduled for Sandra and her partner. No matter, Frances is game to play token straight girl for the group, who tease and adopt her like a queer-eye mascot. But she’s yearning for love, or independence, or a lasting exit from the States, where melancholy memories surround her.
And so, she’s ready when her destiny seems to smack her upside the head on her arrival in Cortona. Here she finds Bramasole, a 300-year-old villa (with olive grove) that calls out to her by way of various “signs.” She’s so struck (and the movie so shameless) that she yells, “Stop the bus!!” in order to flee the tour and trundle up a hill to the villa, which she promptly buys from a sweet old lady. Before you can say “Rossano Brazzi,” Frances is feeling—much like Katharine Hepburn in Summertime—alternately rejuvenated and buffeted by the bellezza dell’Italia.
Such careening turns literal when a fierce thunderstorm provides Frances not only with another “sign,” but also with the comfort, next day, of her charming realtor, Signor Martini (Vincent Riotta). While they exchange longing looks as she cries over her sad, crazy (and melodramatically predictable) losses, Martini maintains a modicum of integrity, asserting loyalty to his wife though Frances’ tears are so winning.
Too cute too often, the film is almost salvaged by the Tuscan landscape it showcases so frequently. But not quite. The melodrama and symbolism tend to collide: when Frances first moves into the villa, a water tap is dry and will eventually be gushing; the house is in dire need of refurbishing, like her life; and she thinks that it would make some difference if only an dour elderly man who walks by her window each day will acknowledge her. Guess what happens by film’s end.
Even more strained is Frances’ seeming global village of a support system, including three eccentric Polish workers—Pawel (Pawel Szajda), Jerzy (Valentine Pelka), and Zbignew (Sasa Vulicevic)—whom she regales with her Italian cooking. One of them, Pawel, falls for a local Italian girl, Chiara (Giulia Steigerwalt), and Frances helps them overcome her father’s prejudice (against the foreigner and the laborer), holding out for true love despite her recent history.
Frances’ own fling, with handsome Marcello (Raoul Bova), is as clichéd, though perhaps less optimistic. She meets him during a shopping trip to Roma, and at first, he does look rather divine, as well as able to keep up with Frances’ appealing sarcasm. Though the romance has evident limits (most, apparently, owing to his manly prerogatives), her pursuit of it soon becomes tiresome. This is not the Frances (or rather, the Francesca, as her Italian friends call her) the film has developed over the past hour. Still, the affair grants Lane some onscreen joy (and she’s delightful when she plays it), as well as yet another Hepburnish moment, as she fights back tears and looks simply stunning in her lovely gloves and ‘50s-style tight-waisted dress.
Among the film’s many overstated emblems is audacious British expatriate Katherine (Lindsay Duncan), who fashions herself after Anita Ekberg in La Dolce Vita, to the extent that she drunkenly steps into a local fountain, and then looks forlorn as a crowd gathers. Claiming that she worked with Fellini as a teenager, Katherine now quotes him in lieu of her own ideas (“Live spherically”), and wears traffic-stopping hats and colorful costumes, Katherine first appears to Frances as if out of nowhere, offering little bits of advice and embodying a model of freedom that leads to perpetual loss and, in Frances’ eyes, regret. But the movie allows other ways of reading Katherine—boldly seductive and relentlessly distracting, she remains excessive, just at the film’s edges.
The tensions and connections between Katherine and Frances are among the film’s most compelling, even as they are also most elusive. Frances wants to be Katherine, the seeming sophisticated version of herself; Katherine wants to be Frances, the younger, less jaded mirror to herself. Neither can have what she wants. And yet, neither turns tragic, which is to the film’s credit. Still, at its finale, Under the Tuscan Sun turns more conventional than it needs to be.