Under the Tuscan Sun (2003)

Cynthia Fuchs

She's yearning for love, or independence, or a lasting exit from the States, where melancholy memories surround her.

Under the Tuscan Sun

Director: Audrey Wells
Cast: Diane Lane, Sandra Oh, Vincent Riotta, Lindsay Duncan
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: Buena Vista Pictures
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2003-09-26

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.






The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.


John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.


Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.


Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.


Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.


Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.


Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.


Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.